In synagogue today, my rabbi took the occasion of his weekly sermon to talk about the weekly Torah portion of Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23). While all of the Ten Commandments were indeed discussed, he paid close attention to the part about honoring ones parents. Very poignantly, I recall, he said that it is a commandment that carries the benefit of long life should one adhere properly; in his opinion, rendering it both, important and very hard to do. I know that to be awfully true. However, my rabbi framed the difficulties of that honor with age, and the burdens that an infirmed and immobile parent can have on children in the prime of their lives. While true too, it didn’t really speak to the very disparate issues of parents who have not truly fulfilled their roles as such, and thus, in a modern sense, may not merit the blind courtesy the Torah seems to require.
Not trying to disparage anyone, or use this forum as a patent setting for airing dirty laundry, but I am guilty of violating the very basic act of the commandment of Kibud Av V’aim (honoring your mother and father). Neither is infirmed or ill in the physical sense, but also, neither have been, in my father’s own words, conventional parents (or parents at all) or the role models I would have hoped my children would have. It saddens me, it is hard to say, but it is the truth as I see it. In recent months, my mother has been trying harder and tries to see our children at least once a week. My father, who is a pulpit rabbi about 20 miles from our home, seems to have more classes, weddings, funerals and Bris celebrations to attend than days in a week and time; and our kids saw him last perhaps one year ago.
During the course of my rabbi’s speech, he acknowledged the 200th year anniversary of the birth of President Abraham Lincoln as a father of the country we live in, and our need to honor such parents as well. He then compared that to the 100th birthday of a scion in my synagogue and neighborhood, a founding father of the synagogue, and welcomed us all to this gentleman’s home to pay tribute to him, his birthday, his accomplishments for the community and family and just for being a long time friend of everyone’s.
This Centenarian, who still comes to synagogue when he can, and offers to help out when he does, must have truly been a devotee of the Fifth Commandment. What struck me, though, is that he was also a close friend, as I recall, of my mother’s parents, my dear bubby and zaidy, who were taken from me so young. In 1980, at the age of 72, Sam Schneider passed, and in 1983, at 63, Gertie Schneider passed – just a short while after my bar mitzvah.
The saddest feelings I have are their deaths, as those two were the parents to honor and the great grandparents our children should have known. It is through them that I learned the value of life, giving and honor, and it is through them that I felt security and comfort in what was a hard childhood for me and my siblings. While my rabbi was talking about honoring ones parents and the life of our Centenarian friend, I began to fathom notions I never truly focused on. You cannot make sense, or pretend to anyway, of divinely made decisions. If you believe and have faith, you just take it on faith; yet all that came to my mind was that neither of my grandparents may have honored their parents too well, for their lives were not extended. My grandfather would have turned 100 last year and my grandmother was to be 89. That would have been nice.
As the thoughts of them being less than perfect with their own parents ran through my head, I had to fast dispel those. It just isn’t what I want to believe. I then thought that if there is indeed a master plan for us all, reward and punishment, both here and in an afterlife, then perhaps their fate was such to be spared seeing the fruits of their life’s toils turn out as they had; yet I think their untimely deaths contributed to the chaos that beleaguered their own four children. Not to get too far into it, but of the four, one since passed on, they share very strained relationships with one another and arguably no relationship at all.
I then think that they do have five grandchildren and would have had ten great grandchildren with whom they could take pride.
So the sermon made me think and tear up, and still wonder why. As I wish Mr. Rosner a happy 100th birthday, I ask him if he remembers my grandparents. He always smiles and tells me that they were some of the best people he had known.
Juda Engelmayer is President and Partner with the NY PR agency, HeraldPR