On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: Commanded to Honor, Compelled to Care - Yitro

In Parashat Yitro, we are instructed to honor our parents, in part so that we may live longer lives. Rabbi Rick Jacobs takes a look at this commandment and wonders: What does honoring our parents mean, especially as our parents grow older, or if our relationships with them are complicated?

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[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On the Other Hand, 10 Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a little bit about the Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parshat Yitro. And he asks what it means to honor your parents and why this commandment is actually a bit different than all the others.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on Parshat Yitro from the Book of Exodus. It's rather famous, not necessarily the word Jethro, which is Moses's father-in-law, but it's the actual revelation on Sinai. And it's distilled into such powerful images for certainly the Western world and of course, the Jewish community, but even pretty much anyone who walks on the earth.

And I wanted to focus on the Ten Commandments, which wouldn't surprise anybody. But I kind of want to maybe do a little bit more. So let me just ask you the following question, this is now one of those rhetorical questions, it's an actual question. Would you like to live a long life? I ask you that because, according to the Torah, all you have to do is follow one of the commandments and you're all set.

So which one is it? Eating matzah on Passover? Giving Tzedakah, fasting on Yom Kippur, praying each day, loving your neighbor as yourself? No? You want a clue? OK, here's the clue, big surprise, spoiler alert, it's in this week's Torah portion. Getting close? All right, here it is. It's the fifth commandment, which says in the book of Exodus, [HEBREW], "Honor your father and your mother," [HEBREW], "so that your days may be lengthy," [HEBREW], "that the eternal your god is giving you."

All right, piece of cake, right? All you got to do is honor your mom and dad, boom, and you have a long life. Well, not so fast, not so fast. The second century sage, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, he saw it a bit differently and said, "The most difficult of all mitzvot is honor your father and your mother." what do you think led him to feel that way? Or maybe Shimon bar Yochai's mother resemble the following woman.

A young Jewish man excitedly tells his mother he's fallen in love and he's going to get married. He says, "Just for fun, Ma, I'm going to bring over three women and you try to guess which one I'm going to marry." The mother agrees.

The next day he brings three smart, kind, beautiful women into the house, sits them down on the couch, and they chat for a while. He then says, "OK, Ma, guess which one I'm going to marry." She immediately replies, "The one on the right." "That's amazing, ma. You're right. How'd you know/" The mother replies, "I don't like her."

Now, OK, maybe it wasn't that funny. But OK, just smile a little bit, I don't care where you are. Just take a moment. But for some of us, honoring our mothers and fathers couldn't be more simple and natural and just flows from an uncomplicated beautiful relationship. For others, let's just say, it can be complicated.

So what is the actual commandment? The fifth commandment doesn't say honor your mother and your father if they are nice and have been your ideal parents, it says honor them, period. Now, I want to make a really important note here. If one's parents are literally abusive, my own view is that those parents do not actually deserve-- they may deserve honor, but you are not obligated to honor them.

So just pay attention to the Hebrew a little bit. In the Hebrew, as I read earlier, [HEBREW]. It says, "Honor your father and your mother." So let's break it down, what does honor mean? In tractate Kiddushin, page 31b, the Babylonian Talmud, it says "Honor means that the child must neither stand nor sit in his father or mother's place, nor contradict their words or tip the scale against them. Honor means that the child must give them food and drink, clothe and cover them, and lead them in and out of their home."

Well, that's a pretty simple, but maybe demanding expression of what honor looks like. And you know the idea of not contradicting their words, that feels a little bit challenging, probably for a lot of us. But, OK, there it is. The Jerusalem Talmud gives the following story, which is a bit challenging. The mother of Rabbi Tarfon went walking in the courtyard one Sabbath day, and her shoe tore and came off. Rabbi Tarfon came and placed his hand under her feet, and she walked in this manner on his hands until she reached her couch.

Once, when he fell ill and the sages came to visit him, his mother said to them, "Pray for my son, Rabbi Tarfon, for he serves me with excessive honor." They said to her, "What did he do for you?" She said, "What he'd always done." In this example of putting his hands under her feet, when she told them that story and they said, "Were he to do that 1,000 times, he has not yet bestowed even half the honor demanded by the Torah."

I don't know about you, but it's starting to get a little bit challenging here. Next question about the actual wording of the commandment, why is your father's honor mentioned before your mothers? You might say, well that's sort of patriarchal Judaism. But it turns out, probably like you, when I was a kid and I did something wrong, which wasn't infrequently, who did I tell first, my mom or my dad?

I bet a lot of us did what I did, which is to tell our moms first, thinking as the Talmud said that mothers are more gentle with us. And because of that, the tradition says, father is mentioned first. Because in matters like this, the tendency would be to go mother first. Now, I want to just think about this unique relationship. This is a particular example. Did you know that the mourning period, mourning for the death of a parent is longer than any other primary relationship? Jewish law requires that we say Kaddish for our parents for 11 months, everyone else is a month.

If we wear a Kriah ribbon or we tear our clothing, we do so as a sign of mourning over our heart for our fathers and mothers. But for brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, and spouses, it's on the other side, on the opposite side of our heart. Why is that, you might ask. It's not that those other relationships aren't important.

My theory is that parents are the universal relationship. Every one of us has a mother and a father. Not all of us have brothers and sisters or children or even a spouse. For better or for worse, all of us have parents. Now, the whole idea of what's the really hard challenging work of parents. Well, sometimes it's to actually be understanding.

I remember when I told my parents I wanted to be a rabbi, the words shocked and stunned hardly approximate the look on their faces. And I'd worked throughout my adolescence for my parents. They were in the furniture business, so I delivered furniture, unloaded railroad cars, and you know that's what I did. My parents kind of imagined that one day I would join them in the family business.

Well, when I told them I wanted to be a rabbi, it wasn't like I was going to go become a low-life, but it wasn't what they imagined for me. And to my parent's credit, they 100% embraced my rabbinic calling. And I just so admire that and hope that I will be the same when my own children are choosing their careers and all the big decisions in their life.

But I want to just get into the hard place, particularly as our parents get older. What's the obligation? What does honoring look like? And there's an amazing story, it's told-- when do we prepare ourselves to care for our aging parents? It's like the story of Shmuel, whose elderly father kept spilling soup on the tablecloth because of his trembling fingers.

One evening the old man dropped a fine teacup and it fell to the floor and broke. "From now on you will eat in your room father," declared Shmuel. "Here is a wooden bowl for you to use. This you cannot break."

The next day Shmuel came home and saw his very young son sitting on the floor trying to carve out of a chunk of wood. "Dearest Yitzchak, what are you doing?" Shmuel asked the boy. "It's for you, father," the son exclaimed. "So you can use it to eat in your room when you were old and your hands start to shake."

Yes, it's sometimes the case that we're teaching our children, not when we're giving them the talk, but when they're watching us do whatever it is that we do in caring for our parents. Well, if we're blessed in some way to have our parents long into their lives, caring for them into their challenging years is part of the journey, and what we do and don't do will be watched by those around us.

Amazing, I read this beautiful prayer by Marian Wright Edelman, who was talking about how all of us accumulate all these hurts sometimes with our parents. And so she wrote a prayer of seeking forgiveness for parents. She said, "I seek your forgiveness for all the times I talked, I should've listened, got angry when I should have been patient, acted when I should have waited, feared when I should have been delighted, scolded when I should have encouraged, criticized when I should have complimented, said no when I said yes, and yes when I should've said no."

And she goes on to express what all of us, I think, carry, which is that sometimes there's a lot of intensity about our relationships with our parents. And even if our parents are no longer alive, sometimes that intensity continues, and where they're trying to make sense out of it.

Just one more story, just powerful about a 17th century German Jewish mother named Gluckel of Hameln, who gives us some sage advice. She wrote about a father bird struggling to transport his three fledglings across a windy sea. He asked each bird in turn if they would do as much for him and provide for him in his old age. The first two replied that they would, and as liars were dropped into the sea.

Third fledgling replied, "My dear father, I shall be wrong not to repay you for when you are old, but I cannot bind myself. This, though I can promise, when I am grown up and have children of my own I shall promise to do for them as you have done for me." So how do we actually go about this business, and what do we do with this commandment that tells us that if we do honor our mother and father we will long endure on the land?

I feel pretty confident that our lives and our children's lives and our parents lives will be enriched, if we could find the strength to really honor our parents. Doesn't mean to agree with them, doesn't mean to say that everything they did was perfect. Just means to express love and appreciation, and to do it in concrete ways and particularly when they're health might be failing.

And sometimes in those moments, the relationship switches, they who cared for us very often become the ones we care for. It's somehow part of the scheme of this Jewish life of responsibility that we live. And I'll also just point out, of course we very often talk about God as parent, and it involves all the same relational issues.

So the commandment is not addressed to children telling them to heed their parents rules, but to adults obligating us to continue to honor our elderly parents even when there's no biological need to do so. There's so many ways to honor parents, simple little things, throwing a milestone birthday, showing up to say Kaddish for them, living the values they nurtured in us, and even maybe caring for them when they no longer can.

So we have lots of commandments. Judaism, we're flush with at least 613 if you do the traditional counting. And the fifth of the Ten Commandments is the one that promises its reward. Kind of is the thing that makes family go round, makes society, makes community go round. And in some ways it sounds so unbelievably simple. But like anything worth doing and worth doing right, it demands some of the core of each of us.

So again, I don't offer this podcast to make anyone feel guilty. But just to tune in that this commandment is different and it requires different expressions from us. So I can't say that it's literally true that when we honor our parents, we live long lives. But I can say that when we honor our parents, our life is filled with more and more blessings.

[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand, 10 Minutes of Torah. Want more? You could download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts or Google Play or Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review or share the podcast with a friend.

For daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, rituals, current events, and more, visit ReformJudaism.org. And follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. You can also follow Rabbi Jacobs on Twitter at @urjpresident. On the Other Hand, 10 Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. And until next week, l'hitroat!