Saturday, December 5, 2020 -
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Listening to their stories

My dad has always been a larger-than-life type of guy and for most of my childhood, appeared to be the dominant force in our family even though Mom often manipulated the outcome from behind the curtains like the Wizard of Oz.

When a tired and grumpy Dad came home from work, my brother and I knew better than to disturb him until dinner. We would tip-toe past the den, where Dad had retreated in solitude to open the mail or take a power nap in his leather recliner, the newspaper tented over his face.

Dad would come to the dinner table and sit in “his” chair –– a place that none of us dreamed of sitting in — and talk about his day. Between mouthfuls of chicken and corn, I learned about grown-up things like office equipment, stocks and bonds and the stresses of working in a family business. Without a doubt, dinner was my favorite time of day.

I didn’t know then that not sitting in my father’s chair was particularly Jewish, but I have since learned that refraining from sitting in a parent’s place is one of the ways to comply with honoring our parents.

The two texts in the Torah that tell us what obligations are expected of children are: The Fifth Commandment (Exodus 20:12,) to “honor your father and mother” and Leviticus 19:3, to “revere your mother and father.” Honor and reverence are two concepts of duty, requiring different sensitivities and commitments on our part as children.

To honor is deemed a positive mitzvah requiring us to provide food, clothing, shelter and generally, for the physical needs of a parent much like they provided for us when we were young. To revere is viewed as a negative commandment, requiring us to refrain from doing certain things, like sitting in our parent’s chair or contradicting or humiliating them in public. (Teenager’s take note!) These obligations extend to all children, whether biological, adopted or step, but there are certain exceptions to the rule.

If a parent requires a child to violate a commandment, forbids a child to go to Israel, forces a marriage partner, causes strife between a child and his or her spouse or is evil, wicked or abusive, then that child is released from the commandment to honor and revere the offending parent.

It is fascinating to me that nowhere in the Torah are we required to love our parents, only to honor and revere them. Why not command love for our parents when we are commanded to love others like our neighbors and strangers?

One interpretation is that it isn’t necessary to state that we should love our parents because it is such an obvious, primary and natural response.

Another interpretation which shows remarkable insight and wisdom on the part of our sages, suggests that for some people, loving our parents may be an impossible request. The obligations of the Torah are designed for us to be able to fulfill. Commanding us to love our parents is something we may not be able to do because it is based in how we feel.

However, honoring our parents is possible regardless of how we feel, because it is based in our actions, not our feelings.

I would like to offer an additional way to honor our parents, one that requires nothing but our time, interest and willingness to listen.

For many of us who are still lucky to have living parents, there is no better time than the present to ask them about their lives and their stories. When we ask our parents to share their stories, we do much to honor them. Expressing who they are and what they value most not only helps them make sense of their lives, it also proves that they mattered and that their lives have lasting meaning.

Listening to our parent gives us an opportunity to slow ourselves down and create sacred time to honor them by showing them that we care. It may be difficult or awkward at first but you can start with some general questions that will open the door to deeper conversation. Questions like: What have been the most important things in your life? What values have affected your decisions? What people influenced you the most? What regrets do you have? What are your hopes for your children and grandchildren?

In our fast-paced, future-oriented society, where things become obsolete before we have even taken them out of the box, the world needs the wisdom of our parents, whose love, values and stories can inspire us to live more meaningful lives as we face an uncertain future.

IJN Columnist | Reflections

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