The sidra contains a very important sentence addressed to Moses: “I shall write upon the tablets the words which were on the first tablets which you broke, and you shall place them in the Ark” (Deut. 10:2).
What is it that God wants to be placed in the Ark – the new tablets or the old broken ones?
According to Rabbi Yosef in the Talmud, the answer is both (Men. 99a). The Ark contained two sets of tablets – a new complete set, and the broken pieces of the first set.
The Talmudic comment is, “We can learn from this that a learned man who, because of misfortune, has forgotten his learning, is not to be treated disrespectfully”. You might have thought that it is precisely because of his learning that a scholar has pre-eminence in the community, and you’d be right – but if he has lost his learning we are still duty bound to honour his earlier contributions to Jewish scholarship.
There was a Greek idea that old people were nuisances who should be left out on the hill tops to perish, but that was never the Jewish concept. It’s not just a scholar whose learning is no longer reliable whom we should honour, like the broken shards of the Decalogue which were preserved in the Ark, but any old person who isn’t what he or she once was.