From Where I Stand
By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Every man: your mother and father shall you revere.
Respecting our parents seems to become more difficult as we get older. When we were small, we didn’t really have much choice. We were totally dependent on them. Then we became adolescents. Not easy then to fulfill the Fifth Commandment. “Honor Thy Father and Mother” is much easier said than done for a teenager for whom autonomy is the call of the hour.
But it seems to me that it gets even more complicated as we ourselves become mature adults. What happens when a parent is aging ungracefully? What if they are becoming irritable, cantankerous, or just plain difficult? Becoming old and forgetful isn’t pretty. And it can make a child’s responsibility quite a challenge.
Perhaps that is why this week’s parashah, Kedoshim, tells us “Ish imo v’aviv tira’u”—“Every man: your mother and father shall you revere.” Ish means a man, or an adult. In other words, the Torah is telling us clearly that even when you are an adult, you still have the moral obligation to show respect and reverence for your parents. It doesn’t matter that you are the world’s busiest executive or that your social calendar is filled with important events. You are still a child. That person helped bring you into this world, fed you, clothed you, changed your dirty diapers, and educated you. Yours is a lifetime debt of gratitude.
The late Rabbi Yirmiye Aloy, alav ha’shalam, the doyen of the South African rabbinate for many years, told an interesting story of when he was visiting the United States and looked up some old friends who were living in an old-age home. He asked them whether their children visited them regularly. The old man’s answer was a quote from Tehillim (68, 20). “Baruch Hashem yom yom, Blessed is Hashem for every day . . .” Rabbi Aloy was most impressed. “Every single day your children come to visit you? That’s fantastic.” “No, Rabbi, you don’t understand,” explained the old man. “Yom yom, two days a year—Mother’s Day and Father’s Day!” That’s what we would call ah bittere gelechter—a sad joke.
There is no question that there will be times when the best thing for an older person is a caring, well-run institution. The least we can do then is to visit regularly. And the longer people can be independent, the better.
But without trying to lay guilt trips on anyone, let me share an example I myself saw as a young boy growing up in Brooklyn. My grandmother passed away, and my grandfather came to live with us. I had the privilege of being his roommate, on and off, for some 12 years. At times, I would help him with the accounting for the gemilus chesed fund that he operated from the house. This community free-loan fund was distributing over a million dollars in interest-free loans annually. I also remember helping him cut his toenails that were difficult for him to reach.
But far more than I helped him, he helped me. He was a special role model for me. Though he wore a rabbinical hat and a long beard, he never preached. His presence and his personality were enough of a message to me as a confused adolescent searching for my way in life. I can honestly say that without his quiet inspiration, I would probably never have become a rabbi. He never even knew what a profound influence he had on my life.
So while it may be true that older people can be difficult—I remember Zayde being impatient and irritable at times too—the rewards far outweigh the sacrifices.
Oh, there’s one more thing. At the end of the day, the way we will treat our parents is likely to be the way our children will treat us. v
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.