Honoring Parents in a Noisy World Parshas Yisro
Whereas most Mitzvos have gotten easier to perform with time, there is one Mitzvah that has gotten harder and harder. Keeping Kosher in the 21st century has never been easier with Kosher food everywhere, Shabbos observance has become more acceptable with greater religious tolerance, but Kibbud av V’eim, honoring one’s mother and father, has only gotten harder.
I would argue that there are a number of reasons for this:
- We live longer. Beginning of the 19th century, the average life span was 40 years!! Today, in the US, that has roughly doubled to an average life span of 80 years. (For Canadians, you actually get a few more years). Modern medicine and longevity is an incredible blessing, but also a challenge. It’s a blessing in that there are people here who are in their 70, 80, 90, with great-grandchildren, living happily, enjoying the equivalent of two lifetimes. But there also illnesses – terrible illnesses, cancer, Alzheimer’s and more that have to be dealt with.
Whereas earlier generations cared for an elderly parent, elderly being in their 30’s, for a few years. Today, you can spend a lifetime caring for an aging parent.
- There is a sociological factor and that is that parents have gotten dumber. Just kidding. But common perception is that parents have gotten dumber.
About fifteen years ago, author, John Tierny, described the moment, where after watching the Simpsons with his 6 year old (I don’t know why someone would watch the Simpson’s with a six year old…), his son turned to him and asked, “Why are dads on TV so dumb?”
Though dads have gotten the brunt of it, there has been a general shift in our perception of both fathers and mothers in the entertainment industry.
The big shift took place in the 80’s and 90’s, when we moved from shows like Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, and the Cosby Show to shows like Roseanne, Married… with Children, and of course, the Simpson’s.
The negative depiction has gone from a trickle to a roar, where now nearly every single parent is depicted as a bumbling, selfish, fool.
I am not one to censor but I literally skip pages from Peppa the Pig (Peppa the Pig is children’s books for three year old’s) because of the way they portray fathers in their books!!!
In light of this negative messaging that is everywhere, the notion of respecting parents or honoring parents? It’s impossible.
A possible 3rd factor is that we, as a society, have become more self-aware. It’s not like parents have gotten worse, studies have shown that we’ve actually gotten better. But because of our growing self-awareness, we are more aware of the damage caused by parents
And so, kibbud av v’eim is so difficult and at the same time it is one of the most important Mitzvos! It made it to the top 10 list – the Ten Commandments! Not only that, it makes its way to the G-d tablet! It’s one of two Mitzvos in the entire Torah that comes along with a guaranteed reward for its fulfillment!
The commentators point out a certain irony about this Mitzvah. The one generation that really didn’t need their parents is the one that received the Mitzvah. This generation had manna falling form heaven, water coming from a rock, clothing, according to the Medrashim, that were cared for, everything was taken care of! Who needs parents in the desert? What did parents give their children?
Parents, it seems, gave them only one little thing – life. Life itself. That’s why they were commanded to honor their parents, even if they gave them nothing else.
And that insight is extremely relevant for us in the 21st century. Because yes, we are far more aware of our parents’ mistakes than ever before, we will typically have to care for our parents for far longer and that will include incredible challenges. But at the end of the day, our parents gave us life.
How do you repay someone for giving you life?
If someone were to save your life, what would you do? You’d call them at least once a week to thank them, you’d send them gifts as often as you could, you’d think about them all the time, and you would lavish them with honor. Endlessly.
So how do we repay the people who gave us life?!
And we all know this. I’m not saying anything profound. It’s just that we get distracted. Things get in the way.
Work gets in the way, emotions get in the way – parents frustrate us more than anyone (probably because they remind us of ourselves more than anyone else), a lot of stuff gets in the way.
We all know intellectually how indebted we are to our parents, but it’s all the static of life that gets in the way of what we’re supposed to do.
There is a beautiful idea found in the Medrashim how the entirety of the world was silent when G-d gave the Torah; the birds stopped chirping, the dogs stopped barking, the water stopped roaring, and the wind stopped howling.
The simple understanding of this Medrash is that the giving of the Torah was so momentous, so epic, that everything and everyone stopped to listen.
R’Shimshon Pincus argues that this is a misunderstanding. He says, no, the world was not silent to hear G-d’s voice. Instead, G-d silenced the world, and when He did so, we were able to hear His voice.
His voice is always there, it’s just that there is so much distortion, so much noise, that gets in the way.
This is true for so many things. There is usually so much distortion that stands between us and the most important things in our life; our children, our parents, and G-d.
That’s what Shabbos is and that’s what prayer is supposed to be. They are there to create a space that allows for the natural connection.
That’s what a date night is with a loved one. There is a natural love that exists between us but we need to clear some space to allow for us to connect.
For those of us blessed with living parents, we to need to create that quiet space of gratitude. We need to override the distortion of terrible messages from the media, override the distortion of our busy lives, override the distortion of the many emotions that get in the way, and create a space for gratitude, for love, for respect and for honor.
This past week, my wife and I ran a session for our Bar and Bat Mitzvah program. As part of the program we had the students write letters to their parents, expressing their gratitude to them. And while this was going on, I was busy preparing the next part of the session. Until it hit me later how sad that was! When was the last time I wrote a letter to my parents? It takes two minutes to write a quick letter, or to write a short email, but instead I allowed the busyness of life get in the way.
It’s important to note that there are times when we are not obligated to override the distortion. When there is too much pain that stands between us; when a parent was abusive, physically, emotionally or otherwise and full-fledged respect would be too taxing.
Those exceptions aside, most of us can override the distortion, and we must. Because too often, the space for love and respect is created against our will.
That space is created by illness, by a calamity, by a crisis, and that silences all those things that have gotten in the way, and all of a sudden the love that we have shines through.
Sometimes the distortion is silenced by death; sometimes it’s only then that a child can love his or her parent. And that’s terribly tragic.
On Friday, I was speaking to a young mother in our community. She has stage four cancer and she is fighting for her life. Recently, she started telling people what was happening to her. And she described to me how people are treating her totally differently. People who otherwise wouldn’t be so kind are now treating her with so much love. And she correctly observed that they aren’t faking or doing so out of sympathy. It’s just that usually, there is so much that gets in the way.
She asked me to remind all of us of how sad this is. It shouldn’t have to come to that. We don’t need the silence to be created against our will. We can and must create it ourselves.
I’d like to conclude by sharing with you a few paragraphs from a very moving reflection by Lisa Solod, titled, When Alzheimer’s Makes Room for Love (New York Times). It’s extreme both in its pain and in its love, and I think it is very relevant to our discussion.
“I am scratching my mother’s head. Her hair is quite thin now and I no longer bother to make an appointment in the nursing home’s “salon” for a cut. It is just another trauma to her, as is taking a shower. When the aides give her a shower I can hear her screaming all the way down the hall, shrieking like a feral cat.”
“I am scratching the head of the woman who more than once told me she would cut off my arm and beat me with the bloody stump when, as a child, I angered her about something. Now she leans back into my hand like the cat she has become, almost purring, after the horror of the shower and the indignity of being dressed and put into her wheelchair for the day.”
“I am stroking the arm of the woman who yelled at me in the streets of Boston that no one should have a daughter as awful as me. Rubbing and scratching the head of the woman who looked at one of my short stories and said, matter-of-factly, “You might have to admit that this is as good as you will ever get.” I was 22.
Every four months I fly a thousand miles to visit my mother in the nursing home. I sit with her for hours each day for nearly a week and then I fly back home. These visits are tortuous but necessary. Because in the past dozen years my love for her has escalated with each visit, as the woman she once was has de-escalated.
A dozen years ago had I been told I would be scratching the head of, tickling the arm of, sitting with, holding and loving my mother like this, I would have laughed. I avoided contact with her then as much as I could. I refused to see her deterioration, assumed it was the alcohol, the bipolar disorder, the sheer self-absorption she threw across her shoulders like a shawl that was responsible for incoherent late night calls, a refrigerator without food, her refusal to leave the house for fear she would get lost. I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to imagine. Even when I knew, I didn’t want to know.
I sat with a woman who nearly destroyed me. Who told her therapist for 30 years that her children were essentially evil and patently ungrateful.
On the last day of my most recent visit, I tell my mother, “I have to leave now, but I will see you soon.” I talk to her as I do my cat, as though she understands. She opens her eyes and there is a sudden look of panic in them and she says: “Please don’t.”
I am so stunned by her words, by words at all, that I tell her I will stay awhile longer and I do, sitting silently beside her. I hold her hand. She grips mine hard. I sit for another half-hour and then I lean in and kiss her forehead and I tell her, as I have countless dozen times before, “I love you, Mom.” And this time, this time, the woman who hasn’t spoken a sentence that makes any sense in almost two years, looks me straight in the eye and says: “I love you, too.””
We must create silent spaces in our busy lives. Spaces free of negative emotions, free of media-driven distortions, and free of everything else that gets in the way. And in that space, we need to develop respect, honor, and expressions of our deep gratitude for those in our life, and especially for those who gave us life.