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Honoring Parents—An Imperfect but Life-Affirming Endeavor

Honoring Parents—An Imperfect but Life-Affirming Endeavor
Parshat Toldot, 5781
Saturday, November 21, 2020

פרשת תולדות, תשפ״א

Parshat Toldot, 5781

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, November 21st, 2020

Honoring Parents - An Imperfect but Life-Affirming Endeavor

None of our parents are or were perfect. As far as I know, all of our parents are or were human. Some, we might argue, made a few more significant mistakes than others, whether in parenting or in life in general. The actions of some may even seem to threaten the strength of our Torah’s famous twice-fold command - kabed et avikha v’et imekha - Honor your father and mother. How are we to properly honor figures who have hurt us or enraged us time and time again?

I can only imagine Yitzhak’s - Isaac’s - response. Just a couple of weeks ago, we read of the akeidah, the moment in which Avraham almost sacrifices Yitzhak at the top of Mount Moriah. The Torah’s description of the incident is quite detailed - Yitzhak is the one who carries the wood up the mountain, the wood that he is later bound upon as his father wields a knife overhead. Although Avraham never carries through, a close reader may notice that Yitzhak does not join Avraham when Avraham returns home to Be’er Sheva. The Torah never again records speech between this father and son. Yitzhak, it seems, is so traumatized by the incident on Mount Moriah that he cannot be in his father’s presence any longer. And yet, Yitzhak demonstrates his ability to honor his father both in life and after death.

Last week, we witnessed Yitzhak and Yishmael, the son whom Avraham banished from the household, joining together to bury their father. This week, Parashat Toldot introduces a Yitzhak who carries out his father’s covenant with God and who builds wells in places his father had sojourned. Somehow, Yitzhak finds a way to provide his father with honor and dignity while still leaving the space between his father and himself that he needs to move forward.

As Yitzhak buries his father, we, too, can practice mourning rituals - dignified burial and saying kaddish once a year. As Yitzhak builds in his father’s memory, we, too, can build and donate and name in honor of parents and other relatives with whom we have struggled. And we, too, can carry forward the positive ideals of our parents that exist beside the troubling. We can even carry forward the lessons we have learned of how not to act. For those whom we are still able to honor in life, we can support without enabling or excusing. And if we are consciously able to set limits to protect our own emotional health, we can visit and call, help to feed and clothe. 

The Torah provides one primary reason for kibud av v’em - this mitzvah of honoring parents. Do so, the Torah instructs, l’ma’an ya’arikhun yamekhau’l’ma’an yitav lakh - so that your life will be lengthened, and so that it will be good for you! I’d like to read the verse with two alternative translations. First, rather than so that your life will be lengthened, we can read that verse as in a way that will allow your life to be lengthened and your days to be good. Honoring parents can and should look different in every relationship - spending time with or trying to emulate parents may be wonderful options for some but may be dangerous or deleterious to others. If honoring parents means taking time away from those parents to prevent future hurt or even teaching about their misdeeds or mistakes to those who need to learn, these actions count as honor, too. We can also read the verse as honoring parents by lengthening our lives, by our days being good. Honoring our parents must not come at the expense of our lives; at the very least, the success of our lives is a testament to those who came before us; our thriving in itself can act as a demonstration of honor to our parents.

I’ve been thinking, this week, of the testament of Neshama Carlebach, daughter of Rav Shlomo Carlebach. Rav Carlebach is celebrated for his music and his transdenominational, soulful approach to Jewish thought and prayer. And yet, in recent years, as Carlebach’s history of sexual misconduct has come into light, Jewish communities around the world have struggled to figure out whether or not to continue sharing his music and teachings. Neshama Carlebach, herself a musician and Jewish leader, writes openly about the confluence of the warm memories she holds of her father and her rage at the accounts of him that she knows to be true: “These are the realizations I’ve come to and the decisions I’ve made: The essence, my friends, is to be brave, to acknowledge fear and not be paralyzed by it. To be angry and to love anyway.” She speaks about fighting against sexual discrimination and abuse as a way to fulfill the ideals that her father had of egalitarianism within the Jewish community and beyond, countering the ways in which he acted against those ideals. And she speaks about her inability to go about that balance of honoring both her father and herself perfectly.

Kibud av v-em cannot possibly be a perfect endeavor. We, like our parents, are only human. But by learning from our parents, by holding onto either the entirety or just the best parts of their memories, we inspire the next generation to honor us in return. We inspire the next generation to learn from our imperfections and to grow from the strengths and ideals we have inherited from our parents and their parents before them. May we endeavor to keep all the memories of those who proceed us as a blessing and live by those blessings in ways that strengthen our lives and the lives of the coming generations. Shabbat Shalom.

Sun, July 14 2024 8 Tammuz 5784