To justify an unwillingness to take measures for reducing the spread of the coronavirus, some young people have argued that, because they are unlikely to suffer severely even if infected, they need not follow recommended precautions. To Shai Held, such an attitude bespeaks not just epidemiological ignorance but a callousness toward the elderly or otherwise infirm who might be put at risk—a callousness exemplified by the following sentiment, expressed over Twitter:
To be perfectly honest, and this is awful, but to the young, watching as the elderly over and over and over choose their own interests ahead of climate policy kind of feels like they’re wishing us to a death they won’t have to experience. It’s a sad bit of fair play.
It is bad enough if we remain indifferent to the plight of our elders; it is far worse to dress up our failings as moral indignation. As a rabbi and theologian, . . . I find myself thinking about the biblical mandate to “honor your father and mother.” The Hebrew word usually translated as “honor,” kabed, comes from a root meaning “weight.” At the deepest level, then, the biblical command is thus to treat the elderly as weighty. Conversely, the Bible prohibits “cursing” one’s parents. The Hebrew word usually translated as “curse,” k’lalah, derives from a root meaning “light.” At bottom, then, the biblical proscription is on treating the elderly lightly, as if they were inconsequential.
Why do I say “the elderly”? In its biblical context, the obligation to honor parents is a command given to grown children (as are the Ten Commandments more broadly—you don’t tell young children not to commit adultery or covet their neighbors’ fields). When you are an adult, the Bible instructs, you must not abandon the elderly. Giving voice to a pervasive human fear, the Psalmist prays, “Do not cast me off in old age; when my strength fails, do not forsake me!”
What does it say about our society that people think of the elderly so dismissively—and moreover, that they feel no shame about expressing such thoughts publicly?