Elul 5766 Sacred Accounting

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					Elul 5766: Sacred Accounting
The Worth of our Parents
Temple Emanu-El, Friday, September 01, 2006
Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg

Three elderly Jewish women are sitting on a bench in Miami Beach. The first one says,

“My son is so devoted that for my birthday last year he gave me an all-expenses-paid

cruise around the world.” The second one says, “That‟s nothing. My son is more devoted.

For my birthday last year, he catered a large affair for me, and even gave me the money

to fly down all my close friends from New York.” The third woman says, “My son is the

most devoted. Three times a week he goes to a psychiatrist. A hundred and thirty dollars

and hour he pays him. And what does he speak about the whole time? Me.”1

Jewish humor can give us a fun glimpse into Jewish culture and even into Jewish values.

You and I know that the joke I just told is just one of probably hundreds of Jewish jokes

about the relationship between parents and their children. Throughout history, others

have seen us and we have seen ourselves as people highly devoted to our families. And

for good reason. Our Jewish tradition – oral and written – places a lot of emphasis on that

relationship between parents and children.

If we had time right now, I could review the parent-child relationships in the entire book

of Genesis, and we would find healthy and neurotic relationships, we‟d find estrangement

and devotion, conflict and reconciliation, honor and deceit. I want to start this discussion

by exploring just one poignant example from Genesis that connects us to the High Holy

    Telushkin, Jewish Literacy, p. 526.

Day season and perhaps gives us some insight into our own relationships with our


For congregations that celebrate two days of Rosh Hashanah, it is traditional to read the

stories of Abraham and his two sons. We hear the story of Ishmael, the son of Abraham

and his handmaid Hagar on the first day. As you may remember, Sarah had given Hagar

to Abraham in order that they might have a son through her. Eventually, Sarah and

Abraham have their own son together – Isaac. Sarah becomes jealous of Abraham‟s

relationship with Hagar and wants to ensure first-born status for Isaac. So she convinces

Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael from their home. On the second day of Rosh

Hashanah, we hear the story of the Akedah, when God commands Abraham to take Isaac

up to a mountain and offer him up as a burnt offering.

Both of these stories tell of incidents that create distance – spiritual as well as physical –

between Abraham and his two sons. Imagine what it must have been like for Ishmael and

Isaac to grow into adulthood and to form their own identities. Any sense of

connectedness to their father must have been colored by the ever-present memories of

banishment in the case of one and near sacrifice in the case of the other. At the same

time, they each knew that Abraham had a special place for each of them in his heart.

Abraham did not want to banish Ishmael and argued with Sarah to reconsider. And Isaac

knew that he was the treasured and the long-awaited son. He was the one who was meant

to carry on the legacy of his father - the covenant with God.

This story taps into a reality that is present for many of us. Whether or not we all even

knew both of our parents or had a relationship with them, they have a hold on us. We

want to understand who they are or who they were. We wonder if they are having an

effect on who we are becoming. We see them in ourselves: when we look in the mirror,

as we age, when we catch ourselves saying things they say or making choices that they

made; as we parent our own children. And we also carry some burdens as part of that

relationship, some burdens heavier than others.

For the most part, though, it is a wonderful thing to notice how we are carrying our

parents‟ legacy forward. I should add that in Jewish tradition, the category of “parent” is

quite broad. It includes step-parents and even teachers. Most of us have received very

important and treasured values, teachings and habits from the older generation. They

have given us so many gifts: of life, of health, of optimism, of confidence in ourselves

and trust in others, of love and the ability to share love with others, of education, of

commitment to social and political causes, and the list goes on and on.

Despite all of the compelling reasons for estrangement between Abraham and his sons,

the Torah shows us the power of that parent-child relationship when it tells the story of

Abraham‟s burial. Isaac and Ishmael hadn‟t seen each other for most of their adult lives,

and they most likely had not seen much of their father during that time either. But when

Abraham dies, they both show up to bury him, remember him, and grieve this loss. Even

after death, and maybe even especially after death, the bond is still there between these

men and their father. They are compelled to face each other and face their memories of

Abraham. And they clearly feel a sense of obligation to grant Abraham the final honor of

a dignified burial.

This sense of obligation of children to parents is central to Judaism, not only as

something that sprouts organically from strong family relationships, but as a law that God

commands all children to observe.

The fifth of the Ten Commandments listed in the book of Exodus states: “Cabed et

avicha v‟et imecha.” “Honor your father and your mother.” The key word here is

“kavod,” which can be translated as honor or dignity. It comes from the Hebrew root,

“kaved,” which means heavy – something that has weight. We are told to give weight to

our parents – to treat them as people who really matter. Jewish law interprets honor quite

narrowly, as upholding basic obligations, which might mean at a certain point making

sure they have food and clothing, and that they are living with dignity. More broadly,

“honoring” means making our parents a priority, setting aside time to cultivate

relationships with them.

Experts in the area of “family systems theory” emphasize how important it is for each

child in a family to build an independent relationship with each parent. Roberta Gilbert in

her book “Extraordinary Relationships” explains that interaction and focus is different

from relationship2. I might spend a lot of time thinking about my mother, focusing on her,

talking about her with my husband and friends, and interacting with her when she asks

 Roberta M. Gilbert, Extraordinary Relationships: A New Way of Thinking about Human Interactions, p.

me what I‟d like for my birthday this year, but this is not a relationship. I might spend a

lot of time involved in the tasks of getting my children ready for school in the morning,

but that is usually more about interaction than relationship-building. I might call my

parents, wanting to talk to my dad about something going on in my life, but before I can

even get beyond “hello,” he invites my mom to get on the phone with us – this is not

building an independent relationship with my dad. We need time one on one with each

other to get to know each other as individuals. This is a way of creating a relationship that

has “kavod” – it has dignity and weight to it.

The same commandment about our parents returns in a different form in the book of

Leviticus, telling us to “revere” our parents. Of these two versions, to honor and to

revere, “to revere” might seem a bit more difficult to swallow, especially for the

teenagers in the room, but also for many of us adults! The word “revere” is rooted in the

concept of “yirah,” a word that we sometimes translate as fear. This commandment

creates a hierarchy in which the parents are the authority figures in their relationship with

their children. When we are still living as dependents, in our parents‟ home, this authority

makes sense. Our parents do have the last word and do have more power than we do, and

for the most part, they probably should.

As we become adults, this hierarchy slowly begins to flatten out. We may even be lucky

enough to enjoy an almost peer-type relationship with them; although, their role as parent

and our role as children never really ends. At a certain point, the children often become

the caregivers, the instruction givers, and the people with the power of attorney for their

parents. But, the commandment to revere still applies – how? The word “yirah” also

connotes a sense of “awe.” Even as we begin to take on the roles of caring for our parents

– which may even mean literally feeding and bathing them – we are reminded by our

tradition to retain a sense of “awe.”

Awe is a kind of amazement or respect for who our parents are as human beings and what

they have done for us and have accomplished in the world. Even when dementia or

confusion sets in, we can strive to remember who they were – their wisdom, their

character, and the wealth of experiences they have had.

So, we know that we‟re commanded to honor and revere our parents, but what should

motivate us to do this? For most of us, the honor flows easily out of our love for them.

But it‟s interesting to note that although we are commanded to honor and respect our

parents, we are not commanded to love them! We are commanded to love God and to

love the stranger, but not our parents. According to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Jewish

tradition understands that in a relationship as intimate as that between parents and

children, love can‟t be commanded. What can be commanded are honor and awe, acts

and behavior that we can consciously take on, even during those painful periods or in

those very difficult relationships when love might be lacking.3

Sometimes honor and respect come naturally – we want to reciprocate what our parents

have done for us, we want their blessing and approval, or we simply have an innate

affection for them. But the Torah doesn‟t expect that it will come so easily for everyone –
    Telushkin, p. 527

and even when we love our parents, we may forget to put the time into the relationship

that we should. So, our tradition gives us these very concrete commandments that are not

based on emotions but are based on God‟s expectations of us.

This is similar to the way Jews look at giving tzedakah – donating funds and time to

those who need it. Tzedakah comes from the word for justice. We don‟t use the word

charity, which comes from the word to care or love. We don‟t give to the poor out of

love, since we may not consistently feel that love. Instead, we give tzedakah because we

are obligated to do so as Jews, as part of the relationship we have with God, and God‟s

expectation of us to create a world of justice. Along the same lines, we don‟t all

necessarily honor our parents out of love, but out of a sense of obligation that flows from

our relationship with God, the ultimate parent.

Even when we do love our parents, our tradition does not ignore how difficult it can be to

honor them. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai said that “the most difficult of all mitzvot is „honor

your parents.‟”4 There are some instances in which honoring parents or being the primary

caregiver for a parent is particularly difficult - even impossible. As Jews, we have

inherited a body of legal literature called responsa, in which someone will pose a

question to Jewish legal scholar, and the rabbi or scholar responds with a legal ruling.

Questions related to honoring parents abound in responsa literature.

One example is the question of what do about the foolish or abusive parent. One view in

the responsa is that the obligations are unconditional. While you are not required to
    Tanhumah, Ekev 2

emulate the foolish or abusive parent, you are not free to cease honoring such a parent

either. A second view distinguishes between the foolish and the abusive parent. The

foolish parent still deserves respect, but a child is released from honoring a wicked or

abusive parent.5

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that “In so many cases, it is the parents who make it

impossible for the young to obey the Fifth Commandment. My message to parents is:

Every day ask yourselves the question: „What is there about me that deserves the

reverence of my child?”6

Another situation in which the child is freed from these commandments is when caring

for one‟s parents stretches the limits of a child‟s physical or psychological endurance, for

example, in the case of caring for a senile or severely mentally ill parent. In this case,

even the most stringent Jewish legal thinkers concede that the child should turn the care

of the parent over to professionals.7

And then there‟s the situation that many, many folks in this Sanctuary and beyond are

dealing with:

Jack has always had a terrific relationship with his mother, Adele. As Adele grew older,

Jack swore that he would use all of his financial mans to care for and support his mother.

  Byron Sherwin and Seymour Cohen, Creating an Ethical Jewish Life, p. 167
  Bradley Shavit Artson and Gila Gevirtz, Making a Difference: Putting Jewish Spirituality into action, one
mitzvah at a time, quoting A.J. Heschel, p. 103.
  Sherwin and Cohen, p. 167

As Adele approached her mid-seventies, Jack noticed that she was having a harder time

living on her own. So with Jack‟s invitation, his mother came to live with Jack and his

family – or in other situations, it is often an independent living facility for seniors.

After a few years, it becomes apparent that Adele needed more help than Jack could give.

One day, she fell and fractured her hip. Adele‟s doctors and Jack‟s friends repeatedly

tried to convince Jack that his mother should be in a nursing home, where she would

receive more attention. Adele cried when her son suggested that she live in a nearby

nursing home. Jack, of course, was devastated with guilt.8

In this case, our Jewish tradition is clear. What matters most is that children ensure the

health, safety, and dignity of their parents. Often that means doing a very difficult thing

and allowing others to take care of those basic needs. Of course, there is nothing standing

in the way of children continuing to provide love, emotional support, company and

dignity to elderly parents who are living in nursing homes or other environments.

Feelings of guilt are natural and expected, but a sense of confidence that our parents are

in a safe, healthy and dignified environment usually comes to replace or at least outweigh

the guilt.

This month of Elul is the perfect time of year to reflect on our relationships with our

parents. We can use this time to bridge the space that may have grown between us – with

a call, a visit or a letter. We can use this time to giving our relationships with our parents

 Richard Address, To Honor and Respect: a program and resource guide for congregations on sacred
aging, p. 7-8.

more weight, maybe scheduling a weekly phone call to each parent in our calendars or

palm pilots. If we are having a particularly hard time with a parent, this can be the year to

seek out the help we need to decide what steps to take towards healing or towards

difficult decisions.

If our parents are deceased, this is a special time of year to visit their graves, to attend our

Kever Avot memorial service at the Temple cemetery the day after Rosh Hashanah, to

tell stories and share memories as we light a memorial candle in our homes on the night

before Yom Kippur, to remember and reflect at our Yizkor memorial service on Yom

Kippur afternoon.

As Rosh Hashanah approaches, we can celebrate our relationships with our parents, and

let them know how they add sweetness to our lives, like the sweet raisins in the round

Rosh Hashanah challah and the honey on our apples.

And we can continue to do what Jews have done as long as we‟ve been around – we can

continue to laugh about all of the complexities, the difficulties, the guilt and the joy that

having parents can bring to our lives. Laughter can sometimes help to lighten even the

heaviest of burdens. So, one more joke for your Shabbes:

Three sons of a Yiddishe Mama left their homeland, went abroad and prospered. They

discussed the gifts they were able to give their ageing mother:

AVRUM, the first, said, "I built a big house for our mother."

MOISHE, the second, said, "I sent her a Mercedes with a driver."

DOVID, the youngest, said, "You remember how our mother enjoys reading the Bible?

Now she can't see very well. I sent her a remarkable parrot that recites the whole Bible--

Mama just has to name the chapter and verse."

Soon thereafter, a letter of thanks came from their mother:

"AVRUM," she said, "the house you built is so huge. I live only in one room, but I have

to clean the whole house."

"MOISHE," she said, "I am too old to travel. I stay most of the time at home so I rarely

use the Mercedes. And that driver has shpilkes--he's a pain in the tuchas."



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