America is big on holidays, especially those that relate to family members. There’s a holiday for mothers, a special day for dads and a national grandparents’ day that usually includes a pancake breakfast at preschool. But what inspires these holidays is more than a positive earnings statement from Hallmark Cards. The reason we honor our parents and grandparents is no great mystery: it is because they have given us life.
The Jewish tradition teaches that there are three partners in the creation of a human being: God, the father and the mother. As parents, we are part of a holy relationship with God as our co-parent. This idea can offer great comfort to single parents who need not feel alone in their journey to raise a child. It also implies that the way we treat our parents is a reflection of our relationship with God. Simply put: When we love and honor our parents, we love and honor God.
Judaism is clear about the duties children owe their parents. The Fifth Commandment requires that we honor our father and mother and Leviticus 19:3 commands us to revere our mother and father. The positive commandment to honor requires us to provide food, shelter, clothing and the type of support and care that our parents gave us when we were young, especially as they age. The commandment to revere our parents is one of restraint and forbids us to disrespect, disgrace or degrade our parents, particularly in public.
Jewish wisdom offers an amazing insight about the parent-child relationship. While we are commanded to love God, our neighbors and even the stranger among us, nowhere in the Torah are we commanded to love our parents. How could that be?
Some teach that it is because loving a parent is assumed to be so natural that it need not be stated. But for some children, especially those who have suffered from abuse, that is not the case. Because the Torah was given to us to “live by” and the commandments are meant for us to fulfill, it is possible that we are not commanded to love our parents because it might be impossible for everyone to do.
I am incredibly lucky. Both of my parents are still living and I love them very much. But 16 years ago, when I was in the process of figuring out my life, I unconsciously did something to dishonor them.
At the age of 40, I realized that I wanted to give up the practice of law — to seriously study Judaism. I had no clue at the time where it would lead me, but my heart told me it was what I needed to do to live a more meaningful life.
I was sure that my parents, especially my father, would have a really hard time understanding this decision. I could hear their questions in my head even before they asked them.
“Why would I give up a lucrative legal career to study Judaism without any guarantee that it would amount to anything? How could I walk away from years of study and all the perks of being a lawyer for something so amorphous? Why couldn’t I just get a facelift or buy a new car, like any other self-respecting woman having a mid-life crisis? What would they tell their friends?”
Truth be known, I struggled with some of those questions myself but knew, deep down, that I had to make the change. I avoided telling them about my plans until one night I had a terrible thought.
Do I have to wait for my parents to die before I can live my life honestly?
Writing it down now, I hate the question. Worse, I hate that I actually thought it. But worst of all, I hate what it suggested about our relationship: that I gave my parents so little credit and had such little faith and trust in them, that I didn’t think they could handle my decision.
The idea that I would have to wait until my parents were gone before I could live my life authentically plagued me. But it also catapulted me into a whole new level of being. I realized that if I didn’t believe in my parents, I couldn’t expect them to believe in me. If I didn’t put my trust in their ability to respect my growth and need to change, I couldn’t trust my own judgment when it came to making the change. And if I didn’t respect and honor them enough to tell them, I would never respect and honor myself as an individual.
It’s true that they had certain concerns about my choice at the time, but it’s also true that my father began sending me articles from the New York Times about women who changed their careers mid-life and lawyers who were leaving the profession in search of more meaningful work. My relationship with my parents became stronger and more real. My gift came from within: I no longer doubt that their love for me is so fragile or conditional that it can’t sustain the truth of who I am or what I may become.
Loving our parents is not commanded in the Torah and neither is believing in them. But when we believe in the capacity of our parents to understand our truths, we honor them as well.
Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an author, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney who lives in Tucson. Her columns in the AJP have won awards from the American Jewish Press Association, the Arizona Newspapers Association and the Arizona Press Club for excellence in commentary. Visit her website at amyhirshberglederman.com.