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Honour the Aged

Extracts from a discourse by Dr. Jacob de la Motta.

מפני תיבה תקום והדרת פני זקן ויראת מאלהיך אני ה׳

"Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the old man, and fear thy God: I am the Lord."--Lev. 19. 32.

Among the many and various commands conceived by infinite Wisdom, and by Him instituted for mutual observance between the sons of man; among the many wise and beneficent rules for reciprocal advantage laid down by the supreme Judge, and intended as unerring guides to rectitude and worth; and among the truly great and matchless endowments conferred on our species as distinguishing characteristics of human excellence: reverence for the aged holds a conspicuous place, and displays a refinement of intellect, a benevolence of heart and a nobleness of action, that lift the soul beyond its frail tenement, and disclose a brilliant evidence of that elevated feeling which obtains for its possessor an acknowledged superiority of character above all those who are strangers to this beautiful trait in the life of man. For can the imagination conceive an employment more calculated to cast a lustre on human nature than youth and manhood acting as props to tottering, trembling infirmity? Can the mental vision dwell on a picture, which needs no adventitious tints of art to magnify or embellish it, so bright, so lovely, as the tranquil, furrowed countenance of the sage, the seat of placidness, though wrinkled by the lapse of years; bearing the marks of care, yet indicative of piety; bereft of its youthful fulness through the decline towards the grave, yet stamped with the seal of maturity in wisdom and virtue? Can the eye dwell on a more engaging object than the hoary head bleached by the progress of time, and yet exhibiting the protecting hand of Him who alone can abridge or extend our limited earthly career? Who that has a heart responsive to the supplications of suffering humanity, who that is the least given to sensibility, can do otherwise than feel impelled to engage in sustaining the infirm, assisting the disabled, compassionating the wants of the aged, and reverencing the head silvered by the hand of time? Who that for a moment pauses to reflect on our frail condition, and meditates on the sure approach of a helpless and perhaps lone state, can be otherwise than convinced of the force and importance of that injunction which expressly states: "Thou shaft rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the old man?"

After this brief appeal to the sober judgment—after we have duly considered the various stages which man passes through from infancy to old age; and when we compare the state of our childhood with that of declining years, and regard these two periods as evidencing our weakness and dependence on the assistance of others: can we be at a loss to define the intentions of the Deity when He declared and rigidly enjoined that reverence should be paid to advanced age? Are we not lost in admiration of that beautiful order and symmetry which every where prevail? of that perfect adaptation of all those duties which connect, as it were, in a solid compact, in a continuous chain, the whole human family, which instructs us, whilst it exemplifies the boundless and unmeasured regard the Creator has manifested for the prosperity of his rational creatures? And is this not one of many facts to prove the excellence of those ordinances that were given to the chosen people of God? and does not each of these teem with universal good, and show conclusively the desire of the Lord to approximate us to as near perfectibility as was his original intention when He called man into existence, and created him to be the lord of, and to have dominion over, all that covereth the earth—that is in the water beneath the earth—or that wingeth its flight in the expanse of the firmament?

While we look back to a period so remote as when it pleased the Almighty to communicate his will to the children of Israel­ and while we acknowledge and readily admit the magnitude of the observance of this law as expressed in our text : I am con­vinced it will not be uninteresting to inquire into, and trace the regard paid to this part of Scripture among certain nations, from days of yore to the present time; and I hope it will be conceded, that, where history informs us that the aged were destroyed be­cause of their being a burden and useless, we shall look at such conduct as existing only in the darkest ages of society, when barbarism flourished as the scourge of the nations among which it prevailed; and in order to confine our remarks to the very letter and spirit of our text, I shall only name such conspicuous incidents as tend to testify the correctness of our subject, and exhibit its utility, importance, and transcendent worth.

We shall perceive, that respect for the aged constituted a prominent feature in the polity of several nations, and included within the scope of its acceptation filial duty—than which nothing can obtain for us more effectually prolonged years, happiness, and prosperity. And, in such great estimation was the duty of reverence for parents held, that we find this injunction contained in the ten commandments that were written by God on the two tables given to our prophet Moses on Mount Sinai. On a former occasion I endeavoured to pourtray this reverence, in more glowing colours; and the more I examine the subject, the more am I convinced of its preeminence. Our sacred volumes afford striking illustrations of punishment inflicted for the violation of this essential command, and those conversant with Scripture must call to mind particular events confirmatory of this. Who can forget the awful dispensation of Heaven that overwhelmed the children of Bethel, for mocking the aged Elisha, the prophet of the Most High? Who can forget the tribulation and ruin of the weak and insolent Rehoboam, who despised the counsel, disrespected the opinions, and set at nought the safe and prudent advice of the aged?

If we revert to periods of more recent date, we shall have abundant proof of the correctness and extensive connection that this reverence bears with our veneration for God. When we speak of the Ancient of Days, we carry our allusion to Him and the creation, and we cannot use a more emphatic term to convey an idea of the Creator, and of the antiquity of the One who lived before planets moved within their spheres, or the light of day illumined the earth; and if it be possible to conceive any image or likeness of God, and if it be permitted to symbolize the most venerable appearance of age, I shall be excused in giving you an emblem in a few words, as extracted from a beautiful imagery: "The Ancient of Days did sit—his throne was like the fiery flame; his wheels as burning fire—his garments were white as snow, and his hair like the pure wool."

In farther confirmation of the antiquity of this reverence, we find seventy elders chosen from among the Israelites to expound and carry into effect our institutions; and if it was not considered a distinguished honour, as an example to be adopted in cases where confidence and judgment are required, it would not have been a special order, that the elders of the nation should be selected to counsel and direct our people.

Leaving the evidence of this reverence at an epoch when precepts were closely followed by example, and when the greatest respect was bestowed, on whatever appertained to this holy injunction: we shall trace the regard to this observance by succeeding nations.

We are informed, that among the Egyptians reverence for the aged was associated with their primary duties. Persia was not less remarkable; for the laws of that country yielded every thing like priority to the elders. Tracing the honours conferred on old age a little farther, we shall find that Greece and Rome established it as one of the first considerations; and it is among these people we notice the profoundest deference paid to persons in advanced years. Lacedemon also reverenced her elders; and in the words of one who has made considerable research in collecting facts to this end, "Sparta was once declared to be the only nation on earth, where a man could wish to be old." Athens was meek and submissive to revered age. And, when by luxury, says the same writer, the energies of the Republic were paralyzed, this goodly custom still prevailed. One of the greatest men that ever lived, avowed, "that the respect, which is paid to age, forms an infallable criterion to estimate the moral advancement of a people." Facts could be multiplied; but sufficient has been adduced to show in what estimation this reverence was held, originally enjoined in the commands of God. Although the days of patriarchal veneration have in some respects passed away, still, while refinement keeps pace with the expansion of the intellect, and we become more enlightened and observant of those relative duties which dignify and adorn, we need never fear to witness deficiency in respect for the aged. We are not the only people who understand and practise this admired virtue, and it behooves us always to endeavour to discountenance any diminution of its influence. We should therefore take heed to keep constantly in view the beauty and excellence of our text, and while we are impressed by its details, we should proclaim aloud to all, encourage and recommend to all, who fear God, "to rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the old man."

We could refer to multiplied evidence in manifestation of this reverence for the aged, to establish its pre-eminence in the scale of our moral as well as social duties. Let us then endeavour to define what is comprised or embraced in the meaning of this injunction. "Thou shall rise up before the hoary head" conveys, in application to our social qualities, a degree of respect, a yielding deportment and submission to priority in years, but particularly a precedence in the knowledge of worldly concern, based upon the concession that youth cannot acquire in a limited time the same extensive acquaintance with human nature­—with the peculiar traits or dispositions of the human mind—with the same incentives to thought and action—with the proper regard to whatever pertains to the advancement and prosperity of the human family. Nor, does it presuppose the same capability of deciding on important and intricate matters, nor that thorough information on the ultimate tendency of incidents that frequently agitate the mind, and fall into action its best energies. I advance that all these qualifications cannot be admitted to be possessed by youth; and as it requires time to comprehend and mature, to treasure up and to judge of the good from the evil, these seem to be the fair and legitimate deductions why the Almighty enjoined on us, that "Thou shall rise up before the hoary head." Furthermore, it must be admitted that advanced age carries with it generally, knowledge of what cannot be acquired by youth, not only on account of deficiency in maturity of intellect, but, because it requires time and observation to learn a part of those wonderful and intricate operations which nature employs in her works.

There is something in the appearance of the hoary head that imperceptibly excites the finest sensations; and draws forth the keenest commiseration for decrepitude and infirmity. We are never made so sensible of our weak and declining condition, as when such an object is offered to our view; for it at once reminds us of that state we are all approaching. It is when helpless human nature is presented before us, that we truly feel a sympathetic glow for the woes of others. It is then we experience that philanthropic ardour, which adorns and dignifies our actions. It is only on occasions like these, we can be made sensible of the approaching deprivation of that strength, that vigour of intellect, that makes us dependent in manhood on our own resources for protection;—and it is only when we behold the declining of all those energies that once placed the possessor independent in earlier days, that we are enabled to feel our own approaching inability and helplessness, and the deprivation of all those powers on which we rely for safety and prosperity. Who, then, that contrasts the power and efficiency of youth with the powerlessness and inefficiency of old age, can fail to admit, that reverence for the aged does not arise solely from a superiority of attain­ments, but, because also the energies of life, being paralyzed in advanced years, lead to dependence on youth for support and stay, and for that poorer of defence which becomes withered by age, and which unerringly casts us down the declivity of time, that we may return again to that defenceless unprotected state, which is inseparable from infancy? It would then appear that the wisdom of God which acts prospectively, and according to the natural causes of things, ordained, that there should be two stages of helplessness in our life; and in order somewhat to provide against the ills consequent on infirmity, declared, that thou shalt not only rise up before the hoary head, but "that thou shalt honour the face of the old man;" and to convince us how earnest and imperative this annunciation is held by Him, He accompanied it with these words, "and fear thy God; I am the Lord;" conveying thereby, that he who should disregard this instruction—who should treat with levity this command—who should in the least degree evince indifference to maturity of age—who should with­hold aid in furthering and perfecting his will—who should mani­fest neglect to that state of physical destitution incidental to old age, must apprehend his displeasure; and such as should violate this injunction, have to fear his vengeance; and, therefore, with the intention of enforcing a punishment for this defalcation of duty, He pronounced at the same time, "Fear thy God—I am the the Lord."

"Thou shall honour the face of the old man." The hand of time fixes certain designating marks on the countenance of old age. The wrinkled brow, the furrowed cheek, the sunken eye, the silvery locks, the absence of youthful freshness—all make up those distinguishing lines that point out the ravages that time has made in robbing life of perpetuity. These lines of demarcation, while they pourtray approaching decay of nature, firmly establish the certainty of that limit, pointed out by God as the sure termination of our earthly sojourn, and are a verification of those words which expressly allude to the dissolution of our material part, "dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."

"To honour the face of the old man," would fairly imply from all that we have stated, a decent respect to the admonitions of our elders, who kindly countenance, and graciously look on our efforts to keep in the path of rectitude. The most acceptable meaning of this honour for the face of the aged, must include the utmost attention to the counsel of the aged, as it is presumed to be predicated on previous and superior knowledge, and bestowed for our advantage. Therefore, those who honour the face of their elders, may be considered as receiving instructions for their benefit. Children cannot be too early instructed in this reverence. It should not be confined to ordinary respect, shown in courteous demeanour; but in rigid attention to the acquired knowledge of our holy religion, of those wholesome lessons, that inculcate good-will and fellowship to our brethren, and to all classes and denominations of rational beings. There is nothing that more firmly establishes the reputation of youth, as attention to the correct opinions of the ancients to whom God has vouchsafed a superiority in wisdom; for it is the direct manifestation of a well-educated and refined mind, and it gives promise of future excellence; and it stamps at once, in indelible characters, claims on the highest departments of refinement; and the individual so endowed must obtain the admiration of all.

Since, then, we have seen, from our primeval state, as a nation, that respect for old age constituted an essential duty;—since in our investigations of this subject we have traced the strict attention paid by succeeding nations to those, who worn down with age, approach by gradual steps to the dissolution of the mortal frame—and, since we, the people to whom this ordinance was first given, continue alive to the necessity of perpetuating this praiseworthy and beneficent observance: let us always keep in mind and engrave on our hearts, so that they may be present at all times, these words, delivered to our forefathers;, and handed down to us for our special guidance, "Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and. honour the face of the old man, and fear thy God; I am the Lord."

Almighty God, the supreme Architect of the universe—the Lord and only God of Israel, we, thy servants, stand suppliant before the shrine of thy grace, and, with contrite hearts, we implore thy forgiveness for our sins and transgressions. Look down graciously on us, and prosper us in our pious works. Direct our hearts, and dispose us to appear often in this house dedicated to thy service, in which we now offer our prayers. We ask this grace for the remnant of Israel, and for thy people whom Thou hast promised never to forsake.

Almighty Father, the supreme Disposer of events, extend thine infinite goodness and mercy to our people wheresoever dispersed; shed thy benediction on this congregation, and on all congregations assembled this day to praise thy name. Endow us also with a portion of thy divine attributes, that we may pursue and keep the path of righteousness to the honour of thy name, and the exaltation of Israel. Amen.

Charleston, S. C., June, 5603.