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Honoring Parents and Maintaining Our Jewish Practice

Honoring Parents and Maintaining Our Jewish Practice
Parshat Aharei Mot-K'doshim, 5781
Saturday, April 24, 2021

פרשת אחרי מות-קדשים, תשפ״א

Parshat Aharei Mot-K'doshim, 5781

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, April 24th, 2021

Honoring Parents and Maintaining Our Jewish Practice

A few years ago, Rabbi Feivel, our friend Rabbi Natasha Mann from rabbinical school, and I went to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving. While the three of us keep strict kashrut, before that year, my family’s Thanksgiving tradition included a non-kosher turkey and lots of dairy-based sides and desserts, all prepared in the same oven, at the same time. While we wanted to respect my parents, our hosts, we also knew that in my family, part of that respect includes eating a big plate of food at a family meal. As an important part of Thanksgiving in our house is the communal preparation, we brought all of our ingredients to my parents’ house the day before, baked pareve desserts and a full kosher turkey to share, adapted some of our classic family sides with Earth Balance or broth instead of butter, and navigated oven space and timing with those family members who insisted on making the cheesy, buttery, and marshmallow-laden dishes for which kosher adaptation would not work. For the full day, we participated in the chaos of dozens of family members passing in and out of the kitchen, we ate the Thanksgiving meal alongside family we hadn’t seen in years, and we performed the great honor of doing dishes at the end of the night. 

Before everyone left, Feivel, Natasha, and I sat down to recite Birkat HaMazon, the blessing after the meal. When one of my cousins noticed, she gathered the entire family to join with us in a prayer so many hadn’t heard since they attended summer camp decades before. For me, balancing halakhic observance and kibud av v’em (honoring my parents) has never been easy, and yet, on that Thanksgiving, I believe I started to approach a sacred balance.

Last week, we learned about the holy tasks of honoring and revering our parents. We referenced a verse that appears in this week’s Torah portion:

איש אמוֹ ואביו תיראו

A person shall revere his mother and father. That verse continues…

ואת שבתותי תשמרו אני ה׳ אלהיכם

And you shall keep my Shabbats; I am Adonai your God (Leviticus 19:3). In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yevamot (5b), the question arises - What do these two commandments, fearing one’s parents and keeping Shabbat, have to do with one another? And further, why repeat these two commandments here, when we see them in so many other places throughout the Torah? The Rabbis answer that it is possible to think that honoring one’s parents supersedes Shabbat observance. However, by mentioning Shabbat directly after reverence towards parents, the Torah teaches that one cannot use honoring parents as an excuse to abandon Shabbat observance or any other mitzvah commanded by the Torah. By ending the verse with, “I am Adonai, your God,” the Torah reminds the reader that neither parents nor children are above God’s commands. Therefore, if a parent instructs a child to, say, cook for her on Shabbat or to eat a slice of pork roast, that child is obligated to decline. Ultimately, we must be able to hold reverence towards God and reverence towards our parents at the same time; we must find ways to both practice our Jewish observance and show our parents the utmost respect.

For several of us here in the room, such a balance is not so simple. When I began observing Shabbat, refusing to drive to the movies or a restaurant on a Friday night, my parents thought I had joined a cult. It was especially difficult at the beginning, when I was still testing and defining the boundaries of my Jewish practice.

But through my journey and through hearing other’s stories about deepening their Jewish practice, I learned a few lessons about that relationship between kibud av v’em and the intricate observance of halakhah. I learned, first, to invite my family into the parts of Jewish tradition that attracted me; I invited them to visit me in Israel and to join me at a traditional Shabbat meal. When I was home for my first summer after intensive text study, my curious little brother asked about what I was reading when I dove into the weekly Torah portion. So that he and my father could learn together, I bought them this children’s Bible, and my father developed a whole array of questions. Every chance I have, I make sure to share with my parents that my love of Judaism stems from their cultivation of that love - from the giant meals we would hold in our dining room on Rosh HaShanah and Passover, to the Hebrew School and Jewish summer camps my parents insisted I attend, to the reality that the vast majority of their friends have always been Jewish. When we invite our family into our sacred occasions and explain to them why and how we act, we can communicate the joy such actions bring us. Ideally, we can even share some of that joy, as well.

One more vital step in the interplay between kibud av v’em and halakhic practice is the outline of clear boundaries, in advance. My family now knows that if we are going out to dinner on a Friday night, we need to go somewhere walking distance from home so that we can pay the bill before a certain time and return home afterwards. We can spend Saturday playing board games or walking to a nearby park or hiking trail, but we will wait until Sunday to go shopping or to visit a museum. Now that I live so far away from them, I call my parents before each holiday to catch up with them and to let them know that I will be offline on certain dates and at certain times. Even so, they know that in case of an emergency, I will pick up the phone if they call. Although I am certainly not perfect, I try to be clear with my family about what my observance entails, what that means I am not willing to do, and more importantly, what that means I am willing to do.

You may not be willing to join your family at church, but you may be willing to attend an Easter egg hunt with them. You may not be willing to eat crawfish at a crawfish boil, but you may be willing to bring another dish to share with the people present. When you set those boundaries, be ready to answer the question of “why,” even if the answer is, “I don’t know yet, but I will find out and get back to you.”

Of course, this balance does not just apply to relationships between parents and children, but also, to relationships between close friends and family members, as well. In any situation in which explanation of Jewish practice complicates notions of respect and care, patience must become our highest value. When communicating our Jewish needs, we must practice patience in repeating explanations over and over again. I cannot tell you how many times Rabbi Feivel and I have had to tell my parents, “No, we can’t eat unhekshered chicken, even if it wasn’t prepared with any butter.” We must even practice patience when a parent or friend or cousin does not understand or appreciate our boundaries; we can exercise respect and compassion without giving up on our beliefs and values. Especially if a certain kind of Jewish practice is new to us, our friends and family may be wary to see such change in a person they have loved and known for so long. Their acceptance of such a change may take longer than we would like.

When we honor our parents and all of our loved ones by showing them who we are and how we practice, they see how Judaism makes us stronger and more joyful. We explain ourselves, we welcome them in, and we offer resources so that our joy can become contagious. And of course, we acknowledge and respect what practices and beliefs bring them joy, as well. We support them and their traditions in whatever ways we can, within the framework of our own halakhic boundaries. As we learned last week, honoring our parents and honoring God are both acts made from the same cloth; reverence for both God and parents means reverence for the ones who brought us to this place and time, to become this particular Jewish person. Shabbat Shalom.

Sun, October 2 2022 7 Tishrei 5783