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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.

 

 

Jewish Pride at the White House Parshas Bo

While Brexit, Kobe Bryant, the Impeachment trial, and the upcoming Superbowl are on the front pages of the news, for the Jewish People, the ‘Deal of the Century’ was front and center.

Will it work, is the first question. Is it pure politics, is the second.

I, like you, am not a geopolitical expert. I, like you, and frankly everyone in the world, recognizes the complexity of the ever-shifting region. But I hope, you and I, despite our politics, whatever they may be, can still appreciate what happened this past week at the White House.

First to explain what the rationale behind this peace plan really was: Obviously Trump’s “Deal of the Century” looked nothing like previous peace plans which involved shuttle diplomacy or long meetings with the Israeli government and the leadership of the Palestinians. This peace plan was presented without the consent of the Palestinians, leading to the obvious question of what chances does this possibly have? It seems at face value to be bizarre.

Clearly, this is a deliberate radical break from previous plans. It’s a squeeze play – the Trump administration with the implicit and explicit support of many Arab countries is basically telling the Palestinians, this may not be a great deal for you, but there is no better alternative. Take it or leave it. But if you leave it, many of your regular Arab supporters aren’t supporting you any longer.

It’s tough and it’s harsh, and that’s exactly why, some argue, it just may work. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/01/28/trump-peace-plan-is-squeeze-play-against-palestinians-it-might-work/)

Though I hesitate to draw direct comparisons between the parsha and modern-day news as the comparisons tend to be sloppy and inaccurate, it’s hard to ignore the similarities.

Like Pharaoh, the Palestinian leadership seems to have a fetish with the word, no. Like Mahmoud Abbas said this past week, “We say 1000 times; No, no, and no to the deal of the century.”

Which is rather precise. They said no to the 1947 UN Partition plan. They said no to Israel’s request not to attack in 1967. They said no to an Israeli offer to return the Golan Heights in 2000 and they said no to a peace plan later that year that offered the Palestinians their own state with East Jerusalem as capital. No, no, no.

And each time, like the ancient Pharaoh, it did not end well for the no-party. By rejecting the partition plan, they were left with a smaller land than had been offered. By ignoring Israel’s entreaties not to attack in ’67, Jordan lost control of the West Bank. By rejecting the incredible offers of 2000, many of the most peace-loving Israelis became completely disillusioned to the prospect of peace. You cannot keep on saying no and expect things to work in your favor. (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/30/opinion/middle-east-peace-plan.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage)

And like ancient Egypt, not everyone agreed with their leadership. In the opening passages of our parsha, we find an open revolt against Pharaoh, his servants beg him to reconsider. But he does not.

And tragically, his servants who were willing to concede, who were willing to make peace with the Jewish People, end up suffering along with everyone else. There’s a reason we spill some wine at our Pesach Seder. Not everyone’s necessarily guilty, but citizens suffer for the stupidity of their leaders. And that’s sad, it’s terribly sad.

There are undoubtedly scores of Arabs living in the West Bank and in Gaza who would gladly strike a deal with Israel but are afraid to open their mouths. There are many who simply don’t know better because of a terrible and toxic education. And that too is terribly sad. Sad that innocent people have to be subject to humiliating checkpoints and sad that people who just want to live normal lives are subject to abject poverty. We too need to spill some wine, acknowledging that Mahmoud Abbas, like Yasser Arafat before him, does not reflect the opinion of all those he represents and that many of them, truly don’t know better, due to no fault of their own.

But the emotions that struck me hardest this past week, were pride and gratitude.

As the Egyptian plagues wrap up, the Torah feels the need to inform us that Moshe was greatly respected by all the Egyptians. It would seem, that the respect Moshe had, in the streets, and even in the Egyptian palace, was an important component of the redemption process.

Which makes a lot of sense – to be free it was not enough for them to not be enslaved, the Jewish People needed to develop a sense of self-respect, a sense of dignity. They needed to transform from being spit upon to becoming a nation of priests. That’s no easy transition. But seeing their leader, seeing Moshe walk through the halls of government and command the utmost respect, I am sure helped them see themselves in a new light.

Sadly, throughout our history, we have not had leaders who could walk through the hallways of government and make demands for the Jewish People. At times this was because our Jewish leaders were not influential enough. But at other times, far more tragically, Jewish leaders were influential, and chose to remain silent.

In the 1940’s, the late, Rabbi Stephen Wise, was president of the World Jewish Congress, president of the American Jewish Congress, a founder and board member of the ACLU and a board member of the NAACP – he was by far the most influential Jew of his time. And yet, in order to maintain his warm relationship with FDR, Rabbi Wise refused to criticize the administration. The Nazi Olympics, the Nuremberg rallies, Kristallnacht, and even after Rabbi Wise got wind of what was really going on in Europe, he not only remained silent but he attacked those who protested, lambasting the group of 500 rabbis who marched on DC in 1943.

Historians suggest that FDR held his personal relationship with Rabbi Wise over his head. Rabbi Wise wanted President Roosevelt to help, but felt that his silence and support would be a more effective way of receiving the help they needed. In a private letter to his son, after sharing that the President sent regards to the rabbi, he wistfully adds, “If only he could help my people.”

But Rabbi Wise did not have the respect of the administration nor the self-respect to speak up when it was so desperately needed. (https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/297806/franklin-roosevelt-holocaust)

Thirty years later, one of the most powerful political advisors in American history, Henry Kissinger, was then the acting Secretary of State. As many historians have pointed out, his influence with President Nixon was outsized. At times, some felt that Kissinger was the President.

In one recently declassified recording, President Nixon describes his nervousness about an upcoming summit between the US and the Soviet Union. Nixon was afraid that Jews would cause problems. If they did, threatened the President, it would be the worst thing that happened to them. Not only that, he said, I would blame the Jews publicly for causing its failure. To which Kissinger replied, “I agree completely. They brought it on themselves.” (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/08/some-new-comments-richard-nixon-subject-jews-and-blacks/311870/)

In another tape, Kissinger is heard saying that helping Soviet Jews emigrate was not an objective of American foreign policy. And then he added, and I quote: “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”  (https://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/17/nyregion/17nyc.html)

Maybe?!

I recently heard a story from Larry Weinberg, a past president of AIPAC. In 1944, he was a soldier in the U.S. 100th infantry division.  They were in combat in the Vosges Mountains when a fellow soldier came to tell him they had found a Jewish man hiding in the woods who wanted to know if any of the American soldiers were Jewish.  He describes running to meet the man, finding him gaunt and unshaven.  As he got closer, he was filled with emotion, feeling as if he was somehow part of this man’s liberation.   He reached out to the man who asked him in Yiddish if he was a Jew. Larry responded enthusiastically, “Yes, I am a Jew!”  The man came closer, spit in his face and said, “You came too late,” and walked away.

(https://rabbiefremgoldberg.org/israel/trumps-peace-plan-a-historic-day-no-matter-the-outcome/)

 

And so, with our not so recent history in mind, a history of influential Jews who allowed their own standing with Presidents to blind them to the plight of their brethren, who were not confident enough to stand up for their fellow Jews when they desperately needed them to stand up, Jews who were too late – I find it incredibly heartening to know that so many Jews do have the confidence today to stand up and speak up; to ignore all the accusations of being a Jew first and an American second, and do whatever they can to help the Jewish People. Now.

Like Moshe proudly walking through the halls of the Egyptian palaces, inspiring confidence in all of the Jewish people, regardless of your politics, there is something uplifting about a White House room filled with Jews, many of them wearing their kippas, who are proudly and confidently speaking up for their Jewish brothers and sisters in Israel. 

Like the Jews in Egypt, when we pray for redemption, we are not just asking for freedom to practice our faith and be our own people, no.

To be truly free means you are not looking over your shoulder, embarrassed of what you do or say or look like.

To be really free means you are not embarrassed to say that Jews across the globe are my family and I love and care for them and I cannot imagine them living in constant fear and danger.

To be free means that you can proudly say, I am a Jew, I am proud to be a Jew; I am proud of the values the Torah teaches us and I love every Jew, regardless of where they live or what they believe because they are my family.

That’s freedom. And I find myself feeling incredibly privileged to live in a time in which this is so.  

So I return to the questions we started with: Will this peace plan be successful? Is this just political maneuvering, going after votes in Florida and trying to stay in office in Israel?

I don’t know.

None of that impacts my feelings this week. Feelings that justice was served; that you cannot say no over and over again and expect a positive outcome. Feelings of sympathy to the many Arabs who don’t deserve this in any way, shape or form. Feelings of pride. Proud that we are able to embrace who we are in the highest halls of government. And finally, feelings of hope; hope that our self-confidence translates into a deepening connection to our faith, and like in Egypt, that our Jewish pride is a step forward in bringing about the ultimate redemption, a time of true and lasting peace. May we see it speedily in our days.