Deference for the Old: A New Look at Biomimicry

In Aharei Mot -Kedoshim, this week’s Torah portion, we learn the practice of honoring the elderly. There we read:

You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. (Vayikra 19:32)

It is interesting to think about standing as means of expression of honor. But what does it mean “to show deference to the old” beyond standing? And what does it have to do with fearing God?

On one level I have been thinking about this amidst COVID-19 differently. During this crisis our elderly are really at risk and many are locked away from society. How are we showing them respect? In many ways we are not standing but rather sitting at home to show them deference. Social distancing is making sure that we are avoiding the proximity in which we would need to stand for them at all. Are we doing enough to reach out to them during this period?

On another level I have been thinking about this commandment in light of the positive environmental impact of COVID-19. this got me thinking about the inspiring work of Janine Benyus biomimicry, which is the imitation of the models, systems, and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems. Benyus has a message for inventors: When solving a design problem, look to nature first. There you’ll find inspired designs for making things waterproof, aerodynamic, solar-powered and more. In this compelling TED talk she reveals dozens of new products that take their cue from nature with spectacular results. Please take the time to watch:

In this talk she says:

In so many ways I hear her message as an invitation to “show deference to the old” in a different way. 

Benyus created a website that organizes all biological information by design and engineering function to meet our current needs. Check it out at AskNature.org . Perhaps if we gave deference to the ancient geniuses in the natural world all around us we might learn a way out of this intractable COVID-19 epidemic. Maybe having a deep appreciation of the richness of the millions of years of wisdom in the natural world would help us connect with a deep awe if not fear of God.

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