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Honoring Your Parents as You Empty Their House

Honoring Your Parents as You Empty Their House

Jews have blessings for almost every occasion – for seeing the ocean, sighting a rainbow, tasting fruit, putting on a new garment, and more. But with all due respect for traditional blessings, I believe we need a few new blessings, such as before we perform the sacred act of voting, and before we use our computers, to help remind us not to misuse this powerful tool to spread malicious gossip or evil speech.

Here’s another one I highly recommend: a prayer to recite when facing the difficult task of emptying the contents of our parents’ home after they die.

Much is at stake in performing this last act of honor and devotion to our parents. If we do it right, we preserve and transmit their memories and values to the next generation. If we do it wrong, we may open lasting wounds within our families and ourselves.

When I imagine how I’d want my heirs to sort out my own earthly possessions, I think of the wonderful example offered by my close friend, Sharon, and her family. Her parents lived to a ripe old age. While their deaths were not unexpected, Sharon, her siblings, and children understood that closing down the house after 50 years of dwelling in it would mark the end of an era for the family. They wanted to do it right.

Seeking God’s guidance, Sharon and her family composed a prayer they would recite each time they arrived at the house to sort through the contents. The prayer served as a reminder that they were engaged in an endeavor of honor, connection, and love.

The prayer begins:

Master of the universe, as we enter the home of our beloved parents and grandparents, who have left us to be closer to You, please guide our actions to be in accordance with Jewish law and custom, as well as in accordance with their wishes.

I am impressed by how the prayer describes death in a such a delicate and lovely way: “Who have left us to be closer to You,” and how the family asks for guidance “in accordance with their wishes” – as their parents would have wanted them to act.

The truth is, we don’t always know our parents’ wishes. Sharon’s family cannot say for sure which particular keepsake or piece of jewelry her parents would have desired to go to this child or to that grandchild. But the family knew their parents’ overriding wish: Do not fight.

As they recited this prayer, each family member was reminded that if a quarrel arose over who gets this or that possession, there would be no winners, only an indelible stain on their parents’ memories.

The prayer goes on:

Help us to move through their home, which so enriched our lives, in a manner that is a tribute to their teachings and their values. May we perform this sad and wrenching duty with reverence and with dignity.

This verse speaks of “their home,” not ours. The family understood that any object taken from the house is a gift and cannot be claimed by right or entitlement –  whether one is the oldest, cared for them the most at the end, or for any other reason.

It concludes:

May we do so with generosity to others in the family, acknowledging their desire for some of these mementos, and with generosity to others in the community who might benefit from these possessions.

Here the prayer gives consideration to family members who were unable to express their preferences but still wanted to keep something that had belonged to their parents or grandparents.  It also recognizes that every sacred Jewish occasion is an opportunity to help people in need. It is noteworthy as well, that out of respect for the dignity of those who might benefit from these possessions, the prayer does not use a label such as “poor.” This, I believe, is the essence of giving tzedakah (using money to do the work of world-repair or, literally, justice).

When you leave your parents’ home for the last time, may it be with a sense of peace and unity among family members. May you leave in a spirit that would have made your parents proud, honoring their memory by demonstrating you have inherited – and acted upon – their values.

Rabbi Jack Riemer has taught rabbis at sermon seminars throughout North America. His prayers appear in the High Holy Day prayer books of the Conservative and Reform movements. He has published two collections of his favorite sermons: Finding God in Unexpected Places: Wisdom for Everyone from the Jewish Tradition and The Day I Met My Father Isaac at the Supermarket: And Other Encounters with Biblical Tales.

Rabbi Jack Riemer
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