A few weeks ago, a couple in New Delhi, India, sued their own son and daughter-in-law. The reason? These parents had spent their life savings to have their son trained as a pilot in the United States, they financed his lavish wedding in India, they paid for his luxury car and exotic honeymoon, and yet, after six years of marriage, their son and daughter-in-law do not have any intentions of having a child. And so, they are suing their son and daughter-in-law for “mental harassment,” to the tune of $650,000 in damages.
What do you think?
I think the children should counter-sue. I do.
As parents, we spend a lot of money on our children; clothing, food, Jewish education, college… And of course, we have a dream of how our children will end up. It would be irresponsible to not care, and just throw our hands up in the air, and say whatever happens is okay. However, if our “investment” into our children’s lives is contingent on how they “perform” then we have failed them as parents. We may not plan on suing our children, but if we feel “ripped off” because of our child’s grades, their career choice, their choice of spouse, or their level of religiosity, if we say or even think, “I don’t understand, I have invested so much time and energy, why are they acting this way?!” then we have abdicated the most basic responsibility of parenting, and that is to love our children unconditionally. In the words of our Sages, Ahava she’eino teluyah b’davar, love with no strings attached.
So no, I do not think the children should actually sue their parents. But if anyone has fallen short in their responsibilities in this story it would seem to be the parents who loved their child like an investor loves his stock portfolio.
There is an organization based out of New York that helps parents who are dealing with one of the saddest possible realities, parental alienation – when a child chooses to shut their parents out of their life. It is nothing short of heartbreaking to hear about a child who just simply refuses to speak to his or her parent. Often this happens in the case of a divorce; a child gets sucked into the parents’ dispute, picks a side, and distances themself from their other parent. But sometimes, the parent has no idea why this is happening. And I would hate to oversimplify, but sometimes I wonder out loud –
When your child came home with a C on a report card, how did you react? Disappointed, sure that’s okay. But how did you convey your feelings?
Did you shower attention – positive attention – on your child all the time or only when they accomplished things that made you proud? At other times, they were not sure you even knew they existed.
How did you react to decisions your child made that you did not approve of? Did you yell and scream or did you try to understand?
In short, was your love for your child tied to and limited to specific expectations? Was it a love that was contingent, transactional? Or was it a love with no strings attached?
We read today the Book of Rus. It is a book, our Sages explain, that is meant to teach us how to perform chesed, kindness. There are many stories that could have been chosen to accomplish this. There is no shortage of tales in Jewish history that involve people doing remarkable acts for one another. But there is something unique about the chesed performed in this book. When Boaz describes the kindness performed by Rus for her mother-in-law, he describes it as chesed shel emes, literally, true kindness.
What does true kindness mean? Our Sages explain that often when we are kind to others, friends, spouses, and even children, our kindness is incomplete, there is a part of us that is expecting reciprocation. If we are honest with ourselves, it’s hard to avoid. And this is why Rus is chosen as the model of kindness. Her kindness was not regular kindness that is somewhat transactional. It was chesed shel emes, it was true kindness, absolute kindness. There was zero expectation on Rus’s part to receive anything in return. If anything, she was losing so much by following her mother-in-law to the land of Israel. It was an investment she knew – or at least she thought – would have a negative return. But Rus forged forward, she gave and gave and gave, never looking over her shoulder, never accusing her mother-in-law, explicitly or implicitly, of not doing enough in return. Chesed shel Emes. A kindness with no strings attached.
You know why we read this book on Shavuos? There are many reasons, but the reason that speaks to me more than any other is as follows. Today we celebrate the beginning of our relationship with G-d. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors stood at Har Sinai, G-d lifted the mountain over their head, to symbolize a Chuppah, a wedding canopy. What’s the nature of this relationship? How do we characterize this bond that each of us have with Hashem?
One could justifiably assume that it is a contingent relationship, that it is only if we fulfill the Mitzvos that we will receive G-d’s love. But we’d be making a mistake. Yisrael, af al pi shchata, Yisrael hu. Our Sages teach us that even if a Jew sins, even if a Jew commits the most horrible crimes, the bond, the connection, the relationship, the love is never severed. Yes, G-d has expectations of us, 613 of them to be exact. Expectations are healthy, they reflect a belief in one’s abilities. But even when we fall short, the bond, the connection, the love is still there.
I think I’ve shared with you before the letter that Amy Krouse Rosenthal published in the New York Times, titled, You May Want to Marry My Husband. She wrote as follows:
“I have been trying to write this for a while, but the morphine and lack of juicy cheeseburgers (what has it been now, five weeks without real food?) have drained my energy and interfered with whatever prose prowess remains. Additionally, the intermittent micronaps that keep whisking me away midsentence are clearly not propelling my work forward as quickly as I would like. But they are, admittedly, a bit of trippy fun. Still, I have to stick with it, because I’m facing a deadline, in this case, a pressing one. I need to say this (and say it right) while I have a) your attention, and b) a pulse.”
She continues: “I have been married to the most extraordinary man for 26 years. I was planning on at least another 26 together.
Want to hear a sick joke? A husband and wife walk into the emergency room in the late evening on Sept. 5, 2015. A few hours and tests later, the doctor clarifies that the unusual pain the wife is feeling on her right side isn’t the no-biggie appendicitis they suspected but rather ovarian cancer.
So many plans instantly went poof.
No trip with my husband and parents to South Africa. No reason, now, to apply for the Harvard Loeb Fellowship. No dream tour of Asia with my mother. No writers’ residencies at those wonderful schools in India, Vancouver, Jakarta. No wonder the word cancer and cancel look so similar.
This is when we entered what I came to think of as Plan “Be,” existing only in the present. As for the future, allow me to introduce you to the gentleman of this article, Jason Brian Rosenthal.”
She goes on to describe in great detail how wonderful her husband is; how he’s a sharp dresser, the most thoughtful person she’s ever met, a great father, an even greater spouse.
And then she concludes: “I want more time with Jason. I want more time with my children. I want more time sipping martinis at the Green Mill Jazz Club on Thursday nights. But that is not going to happen. I probably have only a few days left being a person on this planet. So why I am doing this?
I am wrapping this up on Valentine’s Day, and the most genuine, non-vase-oriented gift I can hope for is that the right person reads this, finds Jason, and another love story begins.”
Ten days after this letter was published, Amy died in bed, surrounded by her children and husband.
Chesed shel emes. No strings attached. This is pure love, as Amy knew that she would never receive anything in return. She just wanted to give to her husband.
We need not wait until someone is no longer with us, or is almost no longer with us, to perform chesed shel emes. Like Rus, and like G-d, we too can give unconditionally today. We can stop keeping score with our spouse now. We can stop second-guessing our friends every time we interact with them. We can stop tying down our relationship with our children to our dreams. We can do this immediately. We can. We can all love, if we so choose, with no strings attached.