I have been awed by the people who keep on trying to come up with creative ways to daven together. Unfortunately, it is clear from all the medical advice we have received that the appropriate thing to do is to stay home and stay safe. Praying on our own at this time will save lives.
Before getting into the Halachic pieces, a couple of suggestions:
- Tone-setting is an important part of prayer. Even though we cannot pray in shul, put on some special clothing that you would normally wear to shul to help set the tone.
- Though we cannot pray together, for those blessed with a family, pray with them this Shabbos. There is something incredibly powerful about families coming together to pray.
- Shabbos is a time of joy. To the best of our abilities, let’s shut out the worry that we are experiencing and just take in the serenity if a truly quiet Shabbos.
- You can say all the prayers except for Kaddish, Barchu, repetition of Shemoneh Esrei, Kedusha and Krias HaTorah.
- On Friday night you may say Veychulu” after Shemoneh Esrei. Do not say and the blessing of “Magen Avos” through “Baruch ata Hashem, Mikadesh HaShabbos.”
- You can say Birkas HaChodesh on your own. (The Molad is Tuesday morning 14 minutes and 11 chalakim after 10.) We are welcoming Rosh Chodesh Nissan, which will fall out on Yom Chamishi (Wednesday evening and Thursday). Skip Yekum Purkan and Av Harachamim.
- You should ideally read through the Torah portion which is Vayakhel-Pekudei (Exodus 35:1–40:38), as well as the special Torah portion for Parshas Hachodesh (Exodus, 12:1-20). And one should ideally read the special Haftorah as well (Ezekiel 45:16 – 46:18). No blessings are made on the readings.
- We will be making Havdallah via Zoom after Shabbos. If you are able to make your own Havdallah, that is ideal. However, if you cannot, then you can fulfill your obligation through the Zoom Havdallah.
Pesach is less than thirty days away! Are you ready?
I will be recycling posts from last year to review the laws of Pesach. Please feel free to follow up on any posts with questions or comments.
It is not only forbidden to eat chameitz, there is also an obligation to get rid of all chameitz that is in one’s possession.
Biblically, one can relinquish ownership of chameitz that is in one’s possession and that would take care of the issue of owning chameitz. However, our sages were concerned that if one would have chameitz that is sitting around in one’s home they would inadvertently eat it. They therefore required one to remove all chameitz from one’s home. (We will discuss selling chameitz at a later time.)
It therefore follows that if one relinquishes ownership of the chameitz in their home they do not need to remove chameitz from locations that are very difficult to reach since there is no concern that one will inadvertently eat the chameitz there. Additionally, the rabbis concern was only about substantive food items, like a cookie. One need not worry about crumbs. For example, there is no obligation to move a fridge to remove chameitz from behind the fridge. (This is not the same as the prohibition against eating chameitz, which one would violate by even eating a crumb. For this reason, cleaning in the cooking/ dining area is different than cleaning anywhere else.)
We are only obligated to search for chameitz in places that we have reason to assume that it will be found. This makes Pesach cleaning very subjective. If for example, one has a strict policy of ‘no food outside of the kitchen and dining area’ then they only need to look for chameitz in those locations. If one has young children then typically every area of the house potentially has chameitz.
As mentioned yesterday, once we relinquish ownership of our chameitz, there is no Biblical prohibition of having chameitz in the house. The Rabbis were concerned that if chameitz was sitting around one would absentmindedly eat it. That being said, when one is cleaning for Pesach there is no need to look for crumbs. Since we either sell our chameitz and whatever is not sold, we relinquish ownership to, we therefore do not need to worry about insubstantial items like crumbs and the like. The one exception to this is the kitchen which we will discuss in more detail in the days to come.
Books – Although one sometimes eats while reading books and therefore there is reason to assume that crumbs have fallen in between the pages one need not clean out every book they own. However, due to this concern the custom is not to bring books to one’s table during Pesach. Benchers that are used during the year should not be used on Pesach and should be put away with the chameitz that is sold.
Kitchen/ Dining Room Table – One should clean very well. If there are hard to reach places, the area should be sprayed with a harsh cleaner. The custom is to cover the table with a water-resistant cover such as a plastic sheet. It should be thick enough that it shouldn’t tear during Pesach.
Tablecloths/ dishtowels – The custom is to use ones that are designated for Pesach use. If this is difficult one can wash the tablecloths/ dishtowels and use the same ones they use year-round.
As mentioned in the previous days, the primary concern of chameitz lying around one’s home is because one may eat the chameitz food. This obviously is not a concern when it comes to crumbs. Therefore, there is no need to drive oneself crazy to find every crumb in one’s home. If one does not have young children and there is no concern about food being hidden in all sorts of places then one should not be breaking a sweat when cleaning for chameitz.
However, when it comes to the kitchen there is an additional concern of eating chameitz. It is forbidden to eat even a drop of chameitz. That being the case, if a crumb of chameitz is left on one’s kitchen floor and a piece of food falls onto the floor on Pesach, the chameitz can get attached to the food and become forbidden to eat. Therefore it is imperative to meticulously clean one’s kitchen.
In addition, anything that came into contact of hot chameitz during the year retains a chameitz status and if it comes into contact with hot food on Pesach can make the food chameitz and forbidden to be eaten on Pesach. We therefore must purge all appliances and surfaces before Pesach to remove any chameitz from within them. The laws of purging appliances, otherwise known as kashering, will be discussed in the coming days.
Probably the hardest area in the kitchen to kasher properly is the sink. The way to kasher the sink: One cannot kasher their sink unless it is made of stainless steel. 1) Do not use hot water in the sink for 24 hours prior to kashering. 2) Clean sink thoroughly. 3) Boil water. 3) Pour boiling water directly on every surface of one’s sink. Allowing the water to flow from one side of the sink to another does not suffice.
Refrigerator: All shelves and surfaces should be cleaned thoroughly. If it is difficult to clean shelve (due to ridges etc.) or it is an area which food touches directly (like a vegetable/fruit drawer) then one must line that area. Otherwise, no lining is necessary.
Any chameitz food that needs refrigeration should ideally be finished before Pesach. If that is not practical, one must place the food in a specific area and cover it in a way that is not so easy to access the food.
One should clean the entire stove top area thoroughly. The way to kasher the burners is as follows:
Electric – The burners should be lit until they glow red.
Gas – Turn stove top on for five minutes. The grates should be placed inside the oven with the oven at a high heat for forty minutes. The burner pans should be kashered, either in the same fashion as the grates/ by covering them with foil/ or the same way you kasher the sink.
Corning – Put the stove on the maximum setting for ten minutes.
In the stove tops listed above, one should either lightly blow-torch the area between the burners or the area must be covered (foil is a safe cover to use).
Glass top – One should put the burners on high and pour hot water over the other areas. Even after kashering, if one has a glass top stove, one should not place any food or pots in between the burners over Pesach.
Whether one can properly kasher microwaves and dishwashers for Pesach are a matter of much debate. I would therefore highly discourage doing so. There are those who rule leniently in this matter and therefore if someone feels like they need to have their microwave or dishwasher, please follow up with me via email/ call for the details as to how to do so.
Kashering ovens for Pesach –
In a regular oven one must clean all surfaces (including thermostat, window, corners, door edges, etc.). One should use a caustic cleaner such as Easy-Off to remove spots that are difficult to remove. If one uses Easy-Off twice and the spot still does not come off one need not worry about it. After cleaning the oven and racks thoroughly one should set the oven to its highest setting for 40 minutes. The broiler pan cannot be kashered but should still be cleaned thoroughly or removed.
In a self clean oven one must remove all visible food and set oven for self-clean with racks inside.
As with all kashering the oven may not be used for 24 hours prior to kashering.
Even after scrubbing countertops they are still considered Chameitz due to the fact that hot food comes into contact with the surface over the course of the year. Therefore one must cover the counter-tops with cardboard or thick padding over Pesach.
If one has a granite (not granite composite), marble, stainless steel, or metal counter-top one may kasher it by pouring boiling hot water over every part of the counter.
Soaps, Shampoos, and Lipstick
Although there are those who are stringent not to, it is permitted to use shampoos and soaps that are made with chameitz materials. (Owning these items is not a problem because it is not fit for consumption).
Ideally, anything that will come into contact with one’s mouth should not have chameitz, even though it is not fit for consumption. Therefore, items like toothpaste, lipstick, chap-stick, and similar products, should be chameitz-free. Kashrut agencies such as OU and Star-K have comprehensive lists on their websites and in print.
Cupboard Shelves, and Towels
One need not line cupboard shelves or drawers with shelving paper. Since they do not come into contact with hot food the only concern is cleaning the area out from any Chameitz.
One may use towels and table-cloths from year round on Pesach as long they are washed in hot water and soap before Pesach.
I want to emphasize that I am writing what is necessary by law. Jewish People from time immemorial have cleaned for Pesach with extra stringencies and it is a beautiful testimony to our ancestor’s commitment to G-d. I would advise that if one has a custom that is a stringency one should treasure it and hold on to it. If for some reason it becomes difficult to maintain, it should be weighed seriously before being discarded.
If something is inedible we do not treat it as Chameitz. However, if one puts that item in their mouth to digest it the Poskim debate if in doing so one gives the item the status of food. In that light I would recommend the following:
Medicine: Bitter or tasteless tablets, capsules, or liquids may be taken on Pesach even though they have chameitz ingredients. (If the medicine taken is in the form of pleasant tasting tablets or liquids an alternative should be found. If none is available, check in with a rabbi before discontinuing use.)
Vitamins: Ideally, a chameitz-free vitamin should be used. If none are available, then as long as the vitamin is bitter tasting or tasteless and prescribed by a doctor, the vitamins may be taken on Pesach.
Eye drops, ear drops, nose drops, and throat sprays do not need to be chameitz free.
Miscellaneous: Don’t Need to be Kosher for Pesach
A few more things that do and do not need to be kosher for Pesach: Paper-ware and plastic-ware do not need to be certified as kosher for Pesach. (However, some do not use paper plates unless it is certified to be Kosher for Pesach. This is due to the fact that corn starch is used in the plate.)
Dish soap, strictly speaking, does not need to be kosher for Pesach but the prevalent custom is to use only kosher for Pesach dish soap.
Liquid cosmetics that contain alcohol, wheatgerm, or vitamin E, is a matter of debate. One may rely on those that permit using perfume, cologne, shaving lotion etc. on Pesach.
One last thing, although not typically eaten by humans but still must be kosher for pesach is pet food. (Pets may be fed food with kitniyot.)
The Talmud relates a story of a man travelling on a boat with chameitz. Realizing that he would be stuck on a boat over Pesach with a large quantity of chameitz, he decided to sell it to a non-Jew who was travelling with him. After Pesach, he bought the chameitz back. Over time, it was common practice for businesses that dealt with large quantities of chameitz would sell their chameitz to a local non-Jew to save them from incurring a large financial loss. Nowadays, in an age of stockpiling, it would be a substantial loss for any of us to just get rid of all chameitz products before Pesach (especially after Purim!), we therefore sell our chameitz to a non-Jew for the duration of Pesach.
The sale itself is rather complex due to the fact that there is no transfer of the physical items being sold. It is therefore customary to appoint a competent rabbi as one’s agent to sell their chameitz.
All chameitz food that is being sold must be placed in an enclosed area. If one could place it in a separate room that is most ideal. If not, cover in a way that makes it difficult to access. If food is in a cupboard one should tape the cupboard down.
We do not sell our pots and pans that have been used for chameitz The reason for this is that if we were to sell a non-Jew our dishes and buy them back after Pesach, we would have to tovel all of those items that we just bought from a non-Jew.
If one will be in a time zone that is different than the time zone that the sale will take place in, one should discuss this with their rabbi. There are some complications with such a sale. For example, if one is in California, where they are three hours later than us in Baltimore, and the rabbi buys back the chameitz immediately after Pesach, the individual who is in California will be in possession of chameitz for the last few hours of Pesach.
Searching for Chameitz
One must search all their property on the night before Pesach. This includes one’s car and any office space which is owned or rented. If it is very inconvenient to check one’s office on the night before Pesach then one should search for chameitz in their office on the night before.
If one will not be home for Pesach then one should check their home for chameitz the night before they leave.
If one will be staying at someone else’s home for Pesach it is not the guests obligation to check. However, if one is renting the room (like at a hotel), they must check the room for chameitz. If they arrive at the hotel on the eve of Pesach, they must check for chameitz upon arrival.
One only says the blessing of bedikas chameitz if they are searching for chameitz the night before Pesach. Otherwise, the search is done without a blessing.
One makes a blessing before searching: Baruch… asher kid’shanu b’mitzvosov v’tzivanu al biur chameitz (Blessed are….Who sanctified us with His mitzvos and commanded us to destroy chameitz).
Since one’s home has been cleaned thoroughly for Pesach at this time there is a concern that the blessing be made is being said in vain. For this reason, there is a custom to hide ten pieces of bread before the search so that there is definitely some chameitz that must be found. That being said, the purpose of searching is obviously not just to find those pieces. One must search for any chameitz that they may have missed.
Although some search with a candle as this was done throughout history, it is totally acceptable and, if it is more efficient, even preferable to use a flashlight. One may leave their lights on if this facilitates the search.
Fast of the Firstborn
Male firstborns must fast on Erev Pesach. The reason for this fast is because the Jewish firstborns were spared on Pesach night from the plague of the firstborn. Therefore, Jewish firstborns acknowledge that they were not worthy of being saved and therefore fast as a sign of repentance on Erev Pesach.
There is another reason, suggested by Rabbi Yakov Kamenetzky Zt”l. On Erev Pesach, the entire Jewish People converged onto the Temple Mount to bring the Korban Pesach. Every family had to participate in this sacrifice and therefore to accommodate the masses of people, every single Kohen was put to work on Erev Pesach. Our tradition has it that the firstborns were supposed to be the priests but they lost their chance after participating in the Golden Calf. That being the case, the day most reminds the firstborns of their lost opportunity is Erev Pesach. Watching the Kohanim hard at work, running the ceremonies at the Temple was a sad reminder to the firstborns of what they could have been doing. It is for this reason, explains Rabbi Kamenetsky, that the firstborns fast on this day; to ask for forgiveness for their participation of the Golden Calf.
All male firstborns must fast; whether it is the mother’s firstborn, the father’s firstborn, whether it was a cesarean birth, whether the mother first had a miscarriage, and even if one is a convert firstborn.
The custom is that a firstborn may attend a Siyum, participate in the Siyum by eating some food served to celebrate, and once the fast is broken they may continue to eat the entire day. (This idea of ‘once the fast is broken it is permitted to eat the entire day’ does not apply to other fast days.)
If a firstborn was not able to attend a Siyum and knows that by fasting they will have a very difficult time participating properly in the Seder, they may break their fast but should not eat more than they have to.
According to some authorities if one is unable to attend a siyum they could participate by listening to the siyum on the phone. This year, if we are still unable to gather together, we will rely on this approach and there will be a call-in siyum.
Seder Night: Four Cups of WIne
One of the major themes of the seder is a celebration of our freedom. To demonstrate our freedom, the rabbis instituted the drinking of four cups of wine at the seder.
Ideally, the cups should be of a good wine. If one is concerned that the alcohol will affect them negatively or if they really dislike the taste of wine, they can drink a wine with a very low alcohol content. If that is challenging as well, one can use grape juice for the four cups.
The cup should be at least 3 ounces. This year, on the first night of Pesach one must use a cup that can hold at least 4.4 ounces (This is because it is Friday night and the obligation for Kiddush is Biblical).
One should drink the entire cup. If that is difficult, one can drink the majority of the cup.
It is customary to not pour one’s own cups.
Seder Night: Matzah
There is an obligation to eat matza three separate times at the seder; motzi matza,korech (Hillel’s sandwich), and for the afikomen.
The amount a person needs to eat is as follows:
Motzi Matza and Afikomen – 1/3 of a hand-made and 1/2 of a machine matza.
Korech – 1/4 of a hand-made and 1/3 of a machine matza.
One must recline when eating the matza and should try to eat each portion of matza within two minutes and at most four minutes.
Seder Night: Marror
There is an obligation to eat marror twice during the seder; once on its own and the other time in a sandwhich. The proper amount of marror to be eaten each time is one ounce worth of marror. If one is using lettuce to fulfill the mitzvah of marror, one big leaf or two stalks of lettuce suffice. One does not lean while eating marror.
What is Kitniyot? What are the applications of this custom?
Kitniyot are certain vegetables that may not be eaten on Pesach according to Ashkenazic custom. Some common examples of kitniyot are alfalfa, beans, chickpeas, mustard, coriander, cumin, lentils, poppy seeds, peas, peanuts, rice, tofu, and soy.
If one has a restrictive diet due to health reasons, one should speak to a competent rabbi but in some circumstances they may eat kitniyot. The same holds true for very young children.
Kitniyot does not have to be sold but should be placed in a covered area to ensure that one will not eat it on Pesach.
Ashkenazim may eat food that was cooked in dishes that kitniyot was previously cooked in. So if one who is of Ashknezic descent were to visit the home of one who has Sefardic customs, he may not eat kitniyot, but he may eat non-kitniyot food cooked in that home even though the pots, pans, etc. were just used to cook kitniyot.
There is a Mitzvah to increase one’s joy during the month of Adar. It is a time when great things happened to the Jewish People and so it is seen as an opportune time for success. The commentators discuss a number of ways to increase happiness. One possible way to do so, based on both Jewish sources as well as psychological research, is to be more grateful. Gratitude generates a happier state of mind.
There are four special Torah portions that are read immediately preceding and during the month of Adar; Parshas Shekalim (February 22, 2020), Parshas Zachor (March 7, 2020), Parshas Parah (March 14, 2020), and Parshas Hachodesh (March 21, 2020).
One should make an extra effort to hear those portions being read at shul, however it is only Parshas Zachor which one has an absolute Biblical obligation to hear. If one misses hearing Parshas Zachor one should try to find a place where they are reading the section later in the day. Many shuls have a second reading of Zachor for anyone who missed.
If this is not possible, one should make sure to be in shul for the reading of the Torah on Purim day and have in mind to fulfill one’s obligation through the reading of that passage.
*If you are ill, please do not attend shul. Please call me to discuss alternative options.*
It is a matter of debate whether this is a Mitzvah that women are commanded to fulfill. It is advisable that women do make every effort to hear the Torah reading on Parshas Zachor.
In the times of the Temple, announcements were made throughout the Land of Israel on Rosh Chodesh Adar that everyone should donate a half-shekel to the Bais HaMikdash to be used to pay for the daily sacrifices. Despite the lack of Bais HaMikdash there is an ancient custom that we donate money to the poor before Purim to perpetuate this practice.
This custom is independent of the Rabbinic Mitzvah of giving charity on Purim.
To properly fulfill this custom one should give three half-coins. (This is done because the Torah says the word “Terumah/ Donation” three times in the section that deals with this Mitzvah.) Since most people do not have three half coins of their own many shuls leave three half coins out for people to acquire (not borrow). By placing an equivalent amount of money in the basket one acquires the three coins and then gives those three coins to charity to fulfill their obligation.
There are varying customs as to whom is included in this Mitzvah. Many have the custom that every member of the family should give (or should be given for).
The day before Purim is Taanis Esther/ the Fast of Esther – March, 9, 2020. The fast begins at 6:14 AM AM and concludes at 7:48 PM. One can brush their teeth with toothpaste but no water. On Tisha B’av bathing/ showering is forbidden and on other fasts it is discouraged. However, on Taanis Esther one can bathe/ shower.
One who is pregnant or nursing should not fast. One who has a severe headache can break their fast.
There is a Mitzvah to hear the Megillah read both in the evening and in the morning. It is an obligation for both men and women. Like all Mitzvos, there is an obligation on the parents to teach their children in fulfilling the Mitzvah. The appropriate age is subjective. When a child can sit through the entire Megillah reading (silently) they are ready to go hear the Megillah. Before this age it is better to keep the child at home so that they will not prevent the parent/s from fulfilling their obligation.
It is forbidden to speak during the reading of the Megillah. If one spoke they have still fulfilled their obligation.
To fulfill their obligation every word of the Megillah must be heard. Tomorrow we will discuss what to do if one misses a word.
One needs to pay attention to every word of the Megillah to fulfill their obligation. Paying attention means that if someone were to ask them what was just read they could answer. If one has less concentration than that it is questionable if they fulfilled their obligation.
If one did not hear or pay attention they can catch up by reading the missed words from the text in front of them (even though it is not a Megillah) and catching up to the reader.
One of the Mitzvos of Purim is to give gifts to the poor. To fulfill this Mitzvah, every adult must give a meal or the monetary value of a meal to two poor individuals. The Mitzvah is to specifically do this during Purim day.
Practically speaking, one has what to rely upon to give as little as $5 for each poor individual for a total of ten dollars. Although the Mitzvah can only be fulfilled during the day, if one would like they could place their money in the Ahavas Yisroel basket in the shul on Purim night. (This is because I, acting as your your agent to deliver the money, do not take possession of the money until the daytime.) One can give both gifts to the poor to Ahavas Yisroel and from a Halachic standpoint we can assume that the money you gave was divided between two poor individuals.
Even after fulfilling one’s obligation, the Shulchan Aruch teaches us that on Purim we should strive to give money to any poor person who asks for help.
There is a Mitzvah to have a festive meal on Purim. While there is a Mitzvah to have a festive meal on many holidays, the festive meal is usually meant to facilitate the joy of the holiday but on Purim the festive meal is an end onto itself. The reason for this is that on Purim festive meals played a major role in the Purim story – according to the Medrashim the Jewish People sinned by attending the festive meal that Achashveirosh threw and we rectify this by having a festive meal that is a Mitzvah and the meal that Esther made for Achashveirosh and Haman where she revealed her identity and turned the tables on Haman.
The meal should take place during the day. It may extend into the evening.
There is a debate among the commentators whether or not a person should become intoxicated on Purim. Many commentators suggest that a person should drink a little more than usual and if possible, take a little nap after drinking and in doing so, one fulfills the custom of drinking on Purim.
*If drinking any amount could cause any form of complication, one is forbidden to drink alcohol.*
While there is what to rely upon to drink more than that, it is certainly forbidden to endanger one’s life in any way possible. If you plan on drinking please make sure you have a designated driver. In addition, while studies have shown that modelling healthy drinking is more beneficial for children than no modelling at all, it is extremely frightening and unsettling for a child to see their parent out of control. If you do decide to drink, please do so responsibly.
There are many reasons behind the custom of drinking. The simplest explanation is to commemorate the fact that the Purim story revolved around drinking. From the Jew’s participation at Achashveirosh’s festive meal to the drinking of Haman on the day Esther accused him of trying to kill her, wine plays a central role in the story.
The Sefas Emes suggests that we drink to demonstrate our lack of worth. An intoxicated individual cannot be taken seriously. Similarly, the Jewish People did not have any merit to be saved on Purim and it was only through G-d’s kindness that we were saved. Drinking, he suggests, is to remind us not to take ourselves too seriously and to recognize how dependant we are on G-d’s mercy.
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.