For a Jew, every day is Father’s Day, not just once a year. The mitzvah to “Honor thy father and thy mother” is one of the most fundamental commandments of the Torah. Interestingly, the commandment of honoring one’s father and mother is on the side of the Tablets dealing with commandments between man and God. This is because our parents are our gateway to God. It is they who teach us about God and the Torah. Therefore, honoring them is essential to the preservation and continuity of the Torah from father to son, generation after generation.
The full wording of the commandment is: “Honor thy father and mother that thy days may be long in the Land which the Lord thy God gives thee” (Shemot, 20:12).
Not many commandments come with a clearly stated reward. Please look closely at the reward for keeping this fundamental commandment – “that your days may be long in the Land” – that means in the Land of Israel. Isn’t that interesting!
What’s the connection? Well, if you honor your father and mother, you will respect what they teach you. Since Jewish fathers and mothers are obligated to teach their children the Torah, they will naturally teach their kids that a Jew is supposed to live in the Land of Israel, just like it repeats over and over again in the Torah dozens of times. Part of respecting one’s parents is by obeying them when they instruct you in the ways of the Torah. Thus a child who honors his parents will live in the Land of Israel, in line with the Torah’s teachings.
Though my parents were not happy when I told them that I was moving to Israel, I made aliyah anyway. While honoring one’s parents is an essential tenet of Judaism, if parents do not want a child to move to Israel, the child does not have to listen to them, since going on aliyah is a mitzvah, and parents are not allowed to prevent a child from carrying out a commandment of God. To my parents’ great merit, even though they were upset with my decision, they always helped me out when I needed their assistance in fulfilling the commandment of living in Israel, which our Sages tell us is equal in weight to all of the commandments of the Torah.
Later, when my aging parents became ill, I had the good fortune of bringing them to Israel to live adjacent to my family in Shilo, and then Jerusalem. When my aunt phoned me from Florida, informing me that my mother was developing the early-warning signs of Alzheimer’s Disease, and that my dad couldn’t handle her outbursts of anger, I immediately flew to Boca. We visited some retirement communities, but when we learned that my mom wouldn’t be allowed to live with my dad because of her condition, I persuaded my dad to let me take them to Israel where my family could watch over them. My uncle agreed to sell their house and car, so I packed up their bags and some cherished belongings, and we drove off to the Miami airport, telling my mother that she was going to Israel for the bar mitzvah of one of my sons.
Thus, my father, of blessed memory, spent his last nine years in the Holy Land. At the end of his sojourn in this world, he merited to be buried on the Mount of Olives, alongside the Prophets and great Rabbis of Israel. After, my dad passed away, we moved my mom into a nursing home nearby, so that I can visit every day.
I can’t say it was easy running back and forth between my mom and dad, and my own topsy-turvy home, having to take care of sick and anxiety-ridden parents and a house with seven energetic children, but, Baruch Hashem, I am grateful that I merited observing the mitzvah from alef to taf. My trials and tribulations became the basis for my latest novel, a comic and moving tale of a family situation we all go through sooner or later, when the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents takes on its greatest weight and meaning – when they are older and need us the most. It’s a wonderful family adventure, filled with Torah and the love of Jewish values. I set the story in New York, at my daughter’s request, so that people in Israel (her friends) wouldn’t say it was about our family. Since it’s still Book Month in Israel, here’s an excerpt from the novel for your reading pleasure, based on the time I (“Joseph”) took my parents (“Harry and Lizzy Friedman”) for a Pesach vacation at a resort hotel, to give my overtaxed wife (“Rivka”) a break. Also, since Dad’s yahrtzeit is coming up, it’s a chance to thank him again for helping me on my journey back to Torah and to Eretz Yisrael. May his memory be for a blessing.
From my novel, Dad :
After breakfast, the Friedman family burned their last remnants of chametz with the rest of the guests of the hotel. A small mountain of rolls, cakes, donuts, noodles, cookies, breakfast cereals, pretzels, and crackers went up in the bonfire. One very religious vacationer poured a bottle of Chivas Regal into the flame.
“Putz,” Harry Friedman said as he watched the aged and expensive scotch whiskey disappear in the pre-Pesach conflagration.
Then, to be a good father to his children, Joseph led his sons to the tennis clubhouse, where he had reserved a court.
“Do you think you are up to it?” Rivka asked him.
“I’ll take it easy,” he promised. “The physiotherapist said that exercise was good for my neck, so don’t worry.”
“You haven’t played tennis for years,” she argued.
“Once a tennis player, always a tennis player,” he answered.
He was, in fact, a pretty good player. He had taken lessons as a youth in their New Rochelle country club, and for a couple years running, he had played almost every day of the week. In high school, he had won a varsity tennis letter. So he wasn’t worried about over exerting himself. He knew how to get by with the least amount of effort and the maximum results. Plus it was only hitting some balls back and forth with his kids. Rivka always urged him to do more with them, and she was right. One of his fondest memories of his own father was a foot race they had had when he was thirteen. Harry Friedman put all his heart into the 100-yard dash and just managed to win. It may have last only twenty seconds, but Joseph remembered that race with his father all of his life.
They had brought their rackets from home, and white tennis shorts and shirts. Joseph wore a floppy hat and sweat band, mimicking the style that Arthur Ashe had made famous. His parents and Rivka sat in the shade of the sidelines to watch as he hit balls fluidly back to Zev and Danny on the other side of the court. Avi and Moishe acted as ball boys for their father, chasing after stray shots until they could have their turn on the court. To show off a little for Rivka, Joseph even sent a few graceful serves rocketing into the server’s box on the other side of the net. Each time, Rivka applauded. His parents even seemed to enjoy the outing as they sipped on fruit drinks in the shade of patio umbrellas.
It happened when Joseph was bending down to pick up a ball. He heard a small click and felt something slip out of place in his lower back. As if frozen by an off-court “Star Wars” ray gun, Joseph was unable to straighten up. The pain wasn’t any worse than the pain in his neck, but he was paralyzed. He thought that if he could stand straight, then the pain would go away, but he couldn’t budge. Like a bent over flamingo, he remained with his head down by his knees, waiting for someone to help.
“Are you OK, Dad?” Avi asked.
“Call your mother,” he said.
“I told you we would pick up the balls for you,” his small son said.
“Call your mother,” Joseph repeated, feeling the pain increase.
“You OK, Dad?” Zev called out, jumping over the net and running over to his father, who looked like an orchestra conductor taking an extended bow.
No matter how hard Joseph willed, he couldn’t straighten his back. He could barely shuffle his feet. The longer he stayed bent over, the pain got worse, spreading up to his neck.
“Why God?” he wondered. “What did I do in LA to deserve this?”
Obviously, this latest dose of suffering was also for the best, though he didn’t know why.
“It will loosen up in a couple of minutes,” the tennis pro assured the crowd that had gathered around Joseph. “It’s a muscle spasm, that’s all.”
Rivka was practically crying. She wanted her husband to lie down on the court, but he couldn’t even do that. His mother came over, but didn’t seem to understand what was going on.
“Shimon says, stand up straight,” Avi joked, not realizing how serious the problem was.
“Shut up, you jerk,” Danny told him.
Finally, a dozen hands lifted Joseph onto a golf cart, and the assistant golf pro drove him off to the guest cottage at the other end of the resort.
“Stay with Grandpa and Grandma,” Joseph told Zev as they whisked him away.
The spasm didn’t unspasm. During the bumpy ride to the cottage, Joseph passed out from the pain. Two hotel bellboys managed to lift him out of the golf cart and carry him into bed where he lay curled up like a fetus until the hotel doctor could be summoned from the neighboring town. After poking Joseph here and there in the back, the country doctor said that it looked like a slipped disc. He wanted to call an ambulance to take him to the nearest hospital for an x-ray, but Joseph refused. With the Passover Seder just hours away, and with his parents to care for, a trip to the hospital was out of the question.
“I’m sure I’ll feel better in no time,” he insisted, trying to make light of the unrelenting pain. “That’s what the tennis pro said.”
“What does a tennis pro know?” Rivka asked.
“Of course he knows. Back problems are a part of his job.”
“You’ve just had a baby?” the doctor asked, when little Rachel started crying in the other room.
“Ten days ago,” Rivka replied.
“Mazel tov,” the doctor wished them in an accent that sounded a lot more upstate New York than Jewish. “You know it’s funny, but a lot of times after a new baby is born, it’s the father’s back that goes out, not the mother’s.”
“My husband is also taking care of his two sick parents,” Rivka told him, hurrying off to pick up the baby.
The doctor left him with some pain killers that he had in his bag and told him to double up on the valium that he was already taking for his neck.
“Back problems can take a day, or a week, or a month,” he said. “Usually, the best thing is rest. There are all kinds of therapies, but nothing beats good, old fashion rest.”
Rivka thanked him and escorted him to the door, carrying the crying baby in her arms.
“Sounds like she wants to eat,” the doctor advised.
After the pain killer started to work, Joseph was able to roll over and semi-stand up from the bed, bending over like a monkey. It helped when he sat in a chair. But all the time he felt like his spine was a fragile column of dominoes that could topple to the floor at any moment.
Through sheer will power alone, he made it to the Passover Seder. True, his son, Zev had to be bring him into the crowded, hotel dining room in a wheelchair, but he made it all the same, neck brace and all. How could he not? Along with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Passover Seder was the highpoint of the year.
The dining hall was packed to overflowing. Families sat around beautifully set tables, laden with bottles of Israeli Concord Wine and stacks of matzah. There was a buzz in the air like before a championship heavyweight prizefight. Kids were running around everywhere. Men wore suits, and women were dressed in their holiday finest. Many of the women wore colorful hats. Rivka was the only one in the room with an Israeli style scarf covering her head. There were some scholarly looking Rabbis, aging zaidas and bubbies, baby carriages and strollers. Joseph’s mother also arrived in a hotel wheelchair, bent over just like her son. Joseph had ordered Zev to give her an extra sedative, to make sure she sat passively throughout the Seder and long evening meal. It broke Joseph’s heart to see his once beautiful mother in such a sorrowful state. He knew he shouldn’t alter the dosages that her psychiatrist prescribed, but not every evening was Passover, and he didn’t have the strength for one of her outbursts in the middle of the celebration.
The guest Rabbi was a well-known educator from Israel. A former American, he had learned at Yeshiva University and served as a popular rabbi in Long Island for almost twenty years before moving his family to Jerusalem. His opening speech was inspiring and funny, but Joseph felt a gnawing pain in his neck and lower back whenever he laughed.
The first part of the Seder was a group experience, with the Rabbi reciting the Kiddush over the first glass of wine, and the head of each family repeating the blessing after him. Since the use of a microphone was forbidden on the Yom Tov holiday, the Rabbi had to shout to be heard over the tumult in the hall. In a booming voice, he began to recite the Haggadah that the Jewish People had been reciting year after year, generation after generation, for over three thousand years, recounting the Exodus from Egypt. It was a cherished mitzvah that every father was commanded to perform, in order to teach the lessons of the Exodus to his children on Passover night, so that the heritage of the Jewish People would never be forgotten. When Joseph was growing up, even though his family was never super religious, they always had a festive Seder, reciting the Passover story out of an illustrated Hebrew and English Haggadah, singing “Dayenu” and other Passover songs, while munching on matzah and maror.
“This year we are here,” the rabbi called out. “Next year in the land of Israel!”
The enthusiastic congregation repeated his words, echoing the age-old wish and longing.
Then it was time for the kids to ask the Four Questions, known as “Mah Nishtanah?” in Hebrew. Joseph’s grandfather had called them “The Fiyah Kashas,” in Yiddish.
In noisy unison, all of the kids in the dining room yelled out the singsong chant:
“Mah nishtanah halaylah hazeh meekol halaylot?” Meaning, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
“Did I ever tell you the joke about the Jew in England who was knighted by the queen?” Harry Friedman asked his son.
“You must have, Dad,” Joseph said, not wanting to interrupt the Four Questions. As best as he could, he leaned over in the wheelchair to show Moishe what he was supposed to read in the Haggadah, but the five-year old had already learned the passage by heart in Heder. Happily, he screamed out the words with the rest of the jubilant children.
Their thunderous cry echoed through the hall, as if resounding from the mountains of Sinai. The volume of the roar penetrated Lizzy Friedman’s doped slumber, awakening her with a start. Holiday or not, it was still the witching hour on her neurological clock. She looked around startled, surprised by the shouting and the size of the crowd. Disoriented and frightened by the unfamiliar surroundings, she stood up from her wheelchair.
“I want to go home,” she said. “It’s too noisy here.”
Without further ado, she started walking away from their table. Instinctively, Joseph stood up to follow her, but with his very first step, he tripped over the foot rest of her wheelchair. He felt his vertebrae shift out of place like a pack of playing cards being shuffled through the air. With a suppressed scream, he crashed face down onto the floor. With all of the yelling and noise in the room, it is quite possible that only Rivka heard the thud and her husband’s agonized cry. Zev was the first at his side.
“Go get your grandmother,” Joseph whispered, feeling like his head was about to explode.
Suddenly, everyone noticed the commotion. The children finished singing the last question, and a hush spread over the hall. Within seconds, Joseph was surrounded by at least a dozen Jewish doctors. There were three internists, two dermatologists, a pediatrician, a cardiologist, a surgeon, two gastroenterologists, an ear, nose, and throat man, an anesthesiologist, and a shrink. As his luck would have it, only an orthopedic specialist was missing.
“Stay in your seats, stay in you seats,” the Rabbi repeated, as curious hotel guests rushed forward to see what was happening.
Harry Friedman stood up from his chair. It looked like his son was being well taken care of by an entire medical clinic, so he hurried off after his wife.
“Lizzy!” he called. “Lizzy! It’s Passover. Will you get the hell back in here!”
Rivka told Shimon to follow his grandfather.
“It’s OK. I’m OK,” Joseph said. Slowly, he rose to his feet, like a boxer at the count of nine. His forehead was sweating and a trickle of blood dripped out of his nose.
Gradually, the crowd of doctors stepped back to give Joseph room to breathe. Danny helped his father back to his wheelchair.
“Where’s Grandma?” he asked.
“Zev went after her,” Danny told him.
“What about you? Are you OK?” Rivka asked.
“I’m fine,” he said. “Where’s my father?”
“Don’t worry,” Rivka assured him. “Shimon’s with him.”
People returned to their tables. The Rabbi took charge once again and told everyone to hold up the matzot.
“I’ve got to go help them,” Joseph said.
“What about the Seder?” Rivka asked.
“I’ll be right back. In the meantime, the kids can follow along with the Rabbi.”
Joseph navigated the wheelchair away from the table. But he was an inexperienced driver and ended up crashing into a lady sitting across the way.
“Next year in Jerusalem,” Danny said, quoting the last sentence of the Haggadah, as he hurried to grab the handles of the renegade wheelchair. With a tug and a push, he shoved his father in the direction of the lobby. Not wanting to miss out on the action, Avi and Moishe jumped out of their seats to race off after them. Even before the Rabbi reached the parable of the Four Sons, Rivka was all alone at their table with the baby. “Some happy holiday,” she thought.Tzvi Fishman
About the Author: Tzvi Fishman was awarded the Israel Ministry of Education Prize for Creativity and Jewish Culture for his novel "Tevye in the Promised Land." A wide selection of his books are available at Amazon. His recent movie "Stories of Rebbe Nachman" The DVD of the movie is available online.The author's opinion does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Jewish Press.
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