The Talmud (Tractate Baba Metzia 87a) explains that until the time of Avraham, an outward appearance of old age did not exist. However, this presented a problem, as people intending to speak with Avraham were invariably confused and ended up speaking with his son Yizchak instead. Therefore, Avraham prayed to Hashem for "old age" and his request was granted. As the possuk states, "Avraham was old, well on in years. . ." (Genesis 24:1). The reasoning offered by the Talmud raises an interesting question. Surely Avraham was not seeking self-glorification. Why then was he so concerned that people speak only to him? Wasn't Yitchak also a knowledgeable individual capable of answering people's questions?

The Kehillat Yitzchak, a compilation of commentaries written at the turn of the century, explains that clearly Avraham was worried about a much more fundamental problem. People desiring guidance in religious or social matters needed to discuss them with someone who had experience and understanding in life. Consequently, speaking with Yitchak, in his relative youth, would not necessarily be helpful. Not only would talking to Avraham be a more profitable use of their time, but talking with Yitchak instead could prove to be disastrous. In this week’s parsha we read of the untimely deaths of Aaron's two sons, Nadav and Avihu. Although the Torah clearly articulates their punishment, their actual sin was much more cryptic. The verse states that, "they brought before Hashem an alien fire that He had not commanded them" (Leviticus 10:1).

The Talmud (Tractate Eruvin 63a) explains that they died after ruling on a religious matter (the bringing of the alien fire) in the presence of their teacher, Moshe. The Talmud then relates a similar episode which occurred at the time of the Mishnah with, Rabbi Eliezer. A student of his ruled on a halachic matter while he was present. Rabbi Eliezer then told his wife that he would be amazed if this student lived out his years. When the student did, in fact, die early, Rabbi Eliezer's wife asked him if he was a prophet, for how else could he have predicted the student's untimely fate. Rabbi Eliezer replied that he was not a prophet, but that he knew that the sin of ruling on a halachic matter in the presence of one's teacher is punishable by Divine death.

Upon close examination, this account in the Talmud raises several difficulties.First, even if the student was guilty of detracting from the respect due to his teacher, why did the sin have such severe repercussions? In addition, why couldn't Rabbi Eliezer overlook his dignity, and thereby save his student from death? Rabbi Chaim Shmuelvitz explains that this account in the Talmud is based on a Midrash which teaches that Klal Yisrael are compared to a bird. This teaches us that just as a bird cannot fly without wings, so too the Jewish people cannot exist without its elders. When a student makes a ruling by himself and bypasses his teacher, he is effectively declaring that there is no advantage in listening to a more senior individual. As such behavior can precipitate the breakdown of Jewish society, his punishment must be harsh and inescapable, so as to discredit this view among the rest of society. However, it remains to be seen how exactly such a conversation with a younger person instead of an older one can result in the downfall of a nation.

The answer, it would seem, is rationalization. Someone with less experience is more likely to justify a lenient answer to a question and may thereby pass an inaccurate ruling. This can lead to a perversion of the laws and customs, and in this way bring about the nation's ruin. Only one who is older and has more experience can recognize the futility and dangers of rationalizing, and is therefore prone to rule more correctly. Clearly, the Torah's outlook on old age is more positive than what we have come to expect from Western society. Regardless of intelligence and wisdom, younger individuals will always lack one significant attribute - experience. Only under the guidance of our elders are we able to avoid the spiritual degeneration brought upon us by rationalization, and instead strive to improve ourselves in our quest to grow closer to Hashem.

Good Shabbos!!

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