Recently I was in a community populated by older people. After davening I was sitting in the passenger’s seat of a car and moved to the back to accommodate an older man who walked with a cane. His friend, an older holocaust survivor, who has lived for all of his post war years in Brooklyn, sat in the back with me and commented that he was very impressed that I gave up my seat. He said it is not common anymore for people to show honor to the elderly.
The next morning as I put on my tifilin I wondered if he would have been as pleasantly surprised that I, an observant Jew, had put on tifilin. Probably not -and yet these actions, wearing tifilin and standing for the elderly, are both biblical commandments.
Maimonides in his book of law puts it this way:
We must stand up for one who is very elderly, even if the person is not a scholar. And even a someone who is a scholar must stand for an elderly individual…We also honor an elderly non-Jew and lend them a hand, for the verse, “stand before the elderly,” applies to anyone who is elderly, (Laws of Torah Study 6:9).
Why is it that we expect religious Jews to be punctilious in performing commandments between people and G-d and not between people and other people? What would observant Jewish life be like if we, like our ancestors, were more careful and paid more attention to the details of interpersonal commandments than those between us and G-d?
Which of these, in fact is more important? If a ritual and interpersonal commandment are in conflict, which should win out?
It is clear I think, that commandments between us and other people come first, and indeed can trump those between us and G-d. According to the Talmud we learn this from Avrohom who leaves G-d’s presence to welcome three people who he thinks are idolatrous nomads, walking in the desert. From here the Talmud concludes, “Greater is the welcoming of guests than receiving the Divine presence.”
If one were in the middle of praying to G-d and a newcomer entered the synagogue that needed to be welcomed should we interrupt our prayer to welcome them? Indeed, it is said of Rabbi Chaim of Veloshon that he did push aside prayer in order to welcome guests.