Honor your father and your mother…(Devarim 5:16)
I’ll bring you cherries and I’ll pit them, as
once you did for toddlers: yours at first,
I won’t fluster you by quizzing
Which fruit is this? although
I want so much to know that you remember –
instead I’ll relish your delight,
your momentary wonder
as you taste their ruby sweetness.
I’ll rub you lightly on your back –
its fragile curve a shipwrecked hull
ridged beneath my fingers.
I’ll draw the shawl up closer
across your rounded shoulders
to shield you from the all-pervading cold.
I’ll tenderly receive your litany of misery
and I’ll gently blot your tears,
as once you dried my own
and I’ll revel in your smiles
as they flicker on your lips,
uncertain as the rays of sun in winter.
I will not interrupt as you sift
for missing words, and nor will I correct you
when the word you net is wrong.
I will match my pace to yours and I’ll waive
my usual hurry, as you inch your way
so wearily across your waning world.
I’ll bring you potted jasmine,
delicate white stars with heady fragrant scent
that may stir buried memories
of walking home on summer nights
beneath the moon you see now
only through the window frame.
I’ll play you gentle symphonies, as once
you played for me, that you might drowse
and dream of somewhere better
and when you wake
I’ll look into your shuttered eyes
and wait with you once more.
The commandment of honoring parents was paradoxically given to the generation who wandered 40 years in the desert, where God provided everyone’s needs. The parents did not need to supply food for their offspring, because God supplied manna. Tradition relays that God also took care of clothing (Midrash Rabba – Shir HaShirim 4:2). Nevertheless, this was the generation that stood at Mount Sinai and heard God say, “Honor your father and mother.” So the Meshech Chochma and the K’tav Sofer teach that we are mandated to honor parents simply because they gave us the gift of life, and not as some form of “repayment” for the years parents spend nurturing their offspring.
However, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai teaches that this is the most difficult of all commandments to follow (Tanchuma Eikev, 2).
In an article entitled Honoring One’s Parents: How Far Should We Go? http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/public/resources-ideas/source-sheets/tol-parashot/yitro.pdf
Rabbi Mark Greenspan reflects on the challenge of the fifth of the Ten Commandments. (He bases his article on a chapter entitled “Between Parents and Children” by Rabbi Daniel Nevins (pp.673-692) in the book, The Observant Life*.)
Rabbi Greenspan asks, “What could be more basic to human decency than honoring one’s parents? [Rabbi] Daniel Nevins points out that the commandment to honor one’s parents is not only one of the fundamental teachings of Judaism but it is also on a par with the reverence for God. The fifth commandment of the Decalogue is a kind of bridge connecting the commandments that define our relationship with God with those instructions which define our relationships with our fellow human being. “Honor your father and your mother” connects heaven and earth.”
However, he adds, “And yet what could be more complex than the commandment to honor our parents and for parents to raise their children to be decent human beings? The Bible bears witness to the complexity of family ties. Genesis prefaces the Ten Commandments by bearing witness to the sometimes dysfunctional relations that connect us to our most ancient ancestors. Abraham nearly sacrifices one son and sends the other off to die in the wilderness. Isaac and Jacob each favored one child over the others leading to familial turmoil. Moses appears to have little or no relationship with his own sons other than naming them. It is no wonder the Bible has to remind us to honor our parents even when honor and reverence don’t appear to be emotionally honest.”
Rabbi Greenspan notes that this commandment of honoring parents was not composed for children. He says that from the discussions in the Talmud and the codes, it is apparent that the sages were addressing the relationship between adult children and their parents. Young children are likely to love their parents in a less judgmental way and they are initially very dependent on their parents. It is the adult children who are normally more challenged in their relationship with their parents and with whom, it seems, the sages are concerned. He cites Rabbi Nevins, “[Halakhah]…establishes norms of conduct to ensure that parents attend to the needs of their children, and that children reciprocate when they reach the proper age. Ideally parents and children should love one another, but halakhah knows better than to legislate love.”
In a sermon delivered on Kol Nidrei 2008, entitled Aging and Caring for Elderly Parents, http://www.shamayim.org/index.php?page=kn-5769, Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman retells a Jewish folktale:
“A mother bird was carrying her three babies across a river. As she carried the first baby in her beak high above the river, she asked it, “When I am old, will you do the same for me?” “Of course, Mother,” replied the baby, “It will be my honor.” The mother bird dropped the baby into the river, saying simply, “You’re a liar.”
As she carried the second baby, the mother again asked, “When I am old, will you do the same for me?” The second baby bird replied as the first, and the mother bird dropped it, too, into the river.
When she carried the third baby across the river, the mother bird asked it, “When I am old, will you carry me across the river as I am carrying you now?” The baby bird answered dolefully, “Oh no, Mother, when you are old, I will have children of my own, and I shall have to carry them across the river. I won’t be able to carry you as well.” The mother bird replied, “You are my darling child, for you have told the truth.” She carried this baby to the other side of the river and gently put [it] down.” (Jewish Visions of Aging, Rabbi Dayle Friedman, p. 85; taken from Yiddish Folktales, ed. Beatrice Silverman Weinreich, p. 24).
Rabbi Zimmerman notes that this is a harsh story, underlining the challenges of caring for aging parents. She says leaving aside the obvious immorality of a mother bird killing her two babies because she rejects their replies to her question, the folktale touches on challenging issues. She observes “The first two babies perhaps misjudge their ability to care for their mother when she grows old, and they assume that their love for her will be enough to sustain them through the challenges of caring for an elderly parent. They are just babies, so how could they possibly imagine how complicated it will be to care for their parents, care for their own children, hold jobs, and tend to their many other needs? Or perhaps they did know how challenging it would be, but they were uncomfortable by the prospect that their mother will grow old, so they blindly reassure her – as well as themselves – that everything will be just fine. They are unable to accept that their beloved mother will become dependent, frail, and ill and that she will eventually die.
The third baby, the darling child who tells the truth and makes it to the other side, is certainly aware of the burden of aging parents. However, this baby takes no responsibility in the matter. It is true that we can never directly repay our parents for raising us. It may also be true that this bird cannot carry both its own children as well as its mother across the river. But this does not absolve it of the responsibility of caring for its mother when she grows old, for other solutions do exist.”
Rabbi Zimmerman points out that if this tale offers an ambivalent view of the responsibility of the younger generation to care for its parents, the Torah is very clear, as we read in Vayikra 19:32 “You shall rise before the gray headed and show deference to the elderly; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.”
The Talmud, in Berachot 8b, describes three instructions that R’ Yehoshua ben Levi imparts to his sons, the last of which is, “Be careful with the honor of an elderly scholar who has involuntarily forgotten his Torah learning, for we say that the second set of Tablets and the broken pieces of the first Tablets both rest in the Ark.” The Gemara in Bava Batra 14b cites a baraita which derives this from the verse in next week’s Parashat Eikev, “I will inscribe on the tablets the commandments that were on the first tablets that you smashed, and you shall deposit them in the Ark.” (Devarim 10:2) in which the phrase “you smashed” seems superfluous. The Rabbis learn from this that the broken pieces of the first Tablets were put in the Ark with the second set. The Rif** (R’ Isaac ben Jacob Alfasi ha-Cohen) teaches that the writing on the first Tablets flew off when they were broken (Pesachim 87b) but were nonetheless accorded the honor of being laid alongside the second set in the Ark. A scholar who has forgotten his learning is analogous to those blank fragments and he too should be honored as previously.
*The Observant Life – The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews eds Martin S. Cohen and Michael Katz.
**Rabbi Isaac ben Jacob Alfasi ha-Cohen (1013 – 1103) also known as the Alfasi or by his Hebrew acronym Rif (Rabbi Isaac al-Fasi), was a Moroccan Talmudist and posek (Halachic decisor). He is best known for his work of halacha, the legal code Sefer Ha-halachot, considered the first fundamental work in halachic literature. He was born in the Algerian city Al Qal’a of Beni Hammad, but spent the majority of his career in Fes, and is therefore known as “Alfasi” (“of Fes” in Arabic).