Today’s daf (Megillah 31b) contains a pithy teaching that conveys a lesson derived from an episode in Sefer Melachim (The Book of Kings) – a lesson that is sadly is far too often overlooked today.
In terms of Sefer Melachim, when Rehavam (רחבעם) the son of Shlomo ascended to the throne, he was approached by the people with a request for a tax break: ‘Your father made our yoke heavy – now, relieve the heavy workload and the harsh yoke your father placed upon us, and we will serve you’ (Melachim I 12:4).
Seemingly demonstrating great wisdom, Rehavam takes a few days to seek guidance about the matter, during which time he consulted with the elders whom had previously served his father. They advised him: ‘If you become this people’s servant today and serve them and respond to them by speaking kind words, then they will become your servants forever’ (ibid. 12:7).
Unfortunately, however, Rehavam ‘rejected the advice that the elders gave him and consulted with the youngsters who had grown up with him and who now served him’ (12:8) who told him to tell the people: ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins. Now, my father burdened you with a heavy yoke, but I will increase your yoke…’ (12:11).
Basing himself on the lessons derived from this story, we are taught by Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar in a Beraita in today’s daf that: ‘if elders say “destroy” and children say “build”, then destroy and do not build, for the destruction of elders constitutes an act of construction, and the building of youths constitutes an act of destruction’. As Rabbi Alex Israel explains, ‘according to this approach, as a rule one should prefer the mature wisdom of the elder to the unripe, inexperienced word of the youth which lacks perspective’ (I Kings: Torn in Two p. 157).
Yet though, on first glance, this teaching offers a ‘biting critique’ of the wisdom of all youth, Rabbi Israel then points out that Rehavam chose to heed the wisdom of ‘the youngsters who had grown up with him and who now served him’ – which ‘denotes a group… whose entire life experience has been framed by the wealth and luxury of the Solomonic era. They are the palace crowd, the wealthy and privileged who have never known a day of hardship in their lives. Their disastrous advice is not merely a function of their age, but a matter of upbringing… dismissing the burden of the hardworking peasantry’ (ibid.). From here we learn that while wisdom often comes with age, it also comes from those who have had a broad range of life-experiences who understand the challenges and burdens of all, and not just the privileged.
As should be clear from here, as well as so many other teachings in the Tanach & Talmud, Judaism places great value on seeking wisdom from those who are older and wiser, or at the very least those with wisdom beyond their years. Yet what we are often unprepared to acknowledge is that today’s so-called ‘influencers’, the voices who possibly we – and more likely our children and students – turn to for insight, often lack both wisdom and years.
As we know, these so-called influencers talk about ‘building’ profiles, ‘building’ an image, and ‘building’ a reputation. Yet so much of what is ‘taught’ by such people is the vanity of vanities, and the lifestyles promoted by many such influencers almost always promote fame, wealth and shallowness, over family, wisdom and morality.
In this spirit, ‘if elders say “destroy”’ – meaning that they advise us to ‘destroy’ the psychological edifices which grant such so-called influencers the opportunity to lead us away from what should be more important to us, ‘and children say “build”’ – meaning that we should continue to build such edifices and heed the wisdom of the latest ‘stars’, ‘then destroy and do not build, for the destruction of elders constitutes an act of construction, and the building of youths constitutes an act of destruction’.