By Rabbi Anchelle Perl
First from the words of U.S. President Barack Obama:
“We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us.
“That’s what a child like Christina Taylor Green believed. Imagine: here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation’s future. She had been elected to her student council; she saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model.
“I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.”
The Talmud relates a strange story:
ת”ר איזהו מטבע של ירושלים דוד ושלמה מצד אחד וירושלים עיר הקודש מצד אחר. ואיזהו
מטבע של אברהם אבינו זקן וזקינה מצדאחד ובחור ובתולה מצד אחר.
The Kings of Judea, residing in Jerusalem, minted their own coins. What was minted on the coin of Jerusalem? On one side, David and Solomon; on the other side – Jerusalem the holy city. Our Patriarch Avraham also minted a coin. What was on Abraham’s coin? On one side of the coin were an elderly man and woman. On the other side of the coin were a young boy and girl.
We understand why the Jerusalem coin had these images engraved on them. David and Solomon were the first permanent kings of Judea, the founders of the Davidic dynasty. David conquered Jerusalem, and made it the capital of the Jewish people. Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, turning the city into an international attraction, the spiritual center of the universe.
But why did Abraham choose these images – of an elderly man and woman, and a young boy and girl – to mint on his coin? Why did these images make their way into the coin of the first Jew?
The answer, of course, is that these images capture the essence of the Abrahamic legacy. Abraham was teaching us the how to “mint” the coin of a people for eternity.
The currency represents the wealth and power of a nation, of a country. We would expect Abraham’s currency to have on it a symbol of power and wealth. But Abraham taught us that his currency – his ultimate understanding of power – were the elderly and the youth.
In our culture and society we underestimate and confer little value on the elderly and on the youth. We value work, entrepreneurship, going to the office from 8 to 9, amassing wealth, success, business contacts. Children need baby sitters and Wii games to entertain them; the elderly too need to be entertained and engaged, but the stuff of life happens after adulthood before retirement.
[A Yiddish folk tale: An elderly widow and widower are living in Florida. They’d known each other for a number of years. At a dinner at their club, they were seated across from each other.
As the meal went on, the gentleman made a few admiring glances and finally gathered up his courage to ask, “Will you marry me?” After a few seconds of “careful consideration,” she replied, “Yes! I will.”
The meal ended and they went their separate ways. Next morning, he was troubled. “Did she say “Yes” or did she say “No?” He just couldn’t remember. Try as he could, he couldn’t recall and so with trepidation he called her.
First, he explained that he didn’t remember as well as he used to. Then he reviewed the lovely evening past. With a little more courage, he then blurted out, “When I asked you to marry me, what did you say?”
“Why,” I said, “Yes. Yes I will,” and I meant it with all my heart. And I’m so glad you called, because, truthfully, I couldn’t remember who had asked me!”]
But Abraham minted on his coin not the image of the king or queen of the time, nor the image of the cities he conquered or the real estate he possessed. On his coin he had an elderly man and woman, and a young boy and girl.
He understood that in order for there to be a nation there has to be an old man and old woman on one side – representing the generation that provides us with guidance, wisdom, life experience, and that transmits to us instructions of what we should and should not do.
The elderly in our tradition are not useless heaven forbid. They constitute our most valuable commodity: our link to our past. A nation without a vibrant link to its memory loses its compass and direction.
It is like a GPS without a satellite. In order to know where to go, you need to know your place in the “global positioning system.” Our elders place us “in context.” They tell us where we come from, and thus who we are today.
To ignore where we come from, and what they have been through, is to disregard who we are today. Our past generates our future.
Rabbi Anchelle Perl is the Director of Chabad of Mineola, NY.
These thoughts were inspired by a recent talk of Rabbi YY Jacobson