They say that one mother can take care of five children, but five children cannot take care of one mother. One of the most challenging situations, and perhaps the most unnatural, is when children need to take care of aging or infirm parents. Why is this so difficult and why do so many of us fail at caring for our parents when they need us most?
As I put pen to paper, it is my father’s yahrzeit and I contemplate my continued responsibility to act on his behalf, to learn and do chesed to uplift his neshama. With Hashem’s help, these words should be an aliya for the neshama of Rav Yekusiel ben Dovid. I often think of how I am unable to fulfill the amazing mitzvah of kibbud Av, and I regret not doing more while I had the opportunity. When my father was niftar, a rav told me that I still have the opportunity to honor my father by respecting my mother, since that would be his wish. Additionally one can continue to show respect by doing good deeds and learning Torah in a parent’s memory. Chazal tell us that children are the feet of their parents in Heaven, and when the children grow in Torah their parents grow as well.
Over the years, I have encountered many men and women who have deep regret at not having shown respect for their parents during their lifetimes or for not having taken care of their needs during their final years. At a levaya of a parent we request mechila, forgiveness, in two different ways. We ask forgiveness for anything we may have done while they were alive and did not properly atone for. These are sins of commission that all children do, but most don’t get the opportunity to properly atone for. The harder form of mechila is for sins of omission, requesting forgiveness for all the things we should have done, but either did not get the chance to or did not do because of our skewed priorities. If the Torah places such importance on our respect for and fear of our parents, again I must wonder why it is such a hard mitzvah to fulfill properly? Besides for the reward of a long life for those who fulfill the mitzvah, it clearly seems to be the logical and correct thing to do.
The Gemara in Sanhedrin tells us that parents will give up anything for their children. “A man can be jealous of anyone, except for his child or student” (Sanhedrin 105b). The theory is that giving to a child is in essence giving to oneself as children are extensions of ourselves. Giving to a child is natural. I was once famished and about to eat a slice of pizza. My children came home from school and eyed my small feast. When they asked for some pizza, I told them that their mother had made them a delicious supper and it was waiting for them in the kitchen. I was hoping to divert their attention for long enough to enable me to eat the pizza. When they predictably responded that they still wanted my pizza, I allowed them to take some… until there was none left for me. At that moment, I was happier making my children happy than I would have been had I eaten the pizza myself, and I realized that I love my children more than they could ever love me. I asked myself–if a parent loves a child so much and gives a child so much, then why isn’t it natural for the feelings to be equally reciprocated?
Chazal tell us that the way we treat our parents is the way our children will treat us. They relate a parable of a man whose elderly father lives with him. The father slurps loudly and makes a mess when he eats, so the son makes a large wooden bowl and spoon for his father to use and has him eat in the kitchen. After many months, the adult son sees his own son carving something out of wood and asks what he was making. His young child responds that he is making a bowl and spoon so his own father would have something from which to eat when he aged.
Our own behavior with our parents becomes a source of reference for our children. When my children see me shopping for or showing respect to their Bubby, they absorb that this is what one should do for one’s elderly parents, and I hope they will take care of me as well.
There are two mitzvos in the Torah for which we are rewarded with a long life. The first is that of Shiluch HaKen. The Torah commands that when one finds a mother bird sitting on her eggs, you must first send her away before you take the eggs. The second mitzvah is that of Kibud Av v’Em, honoring ones parents. The Midrash teaches that both extremes – the easiest commandment of sending away the mother bird and the most difficult commandment of respecting our parents – have the same reward, the lengthening of our days to remind us that we do not really know the value of our mitzvos.
It also shows that Chazal agree with our premise that properly respecting one’s parents is very difficult to do. It is easy for us to have empathy for the mother bird and want to spare her pain, however, taking care of our parents is the opposite extreme, it is something that does not come easily. The basis of this mitzvah is hakaras hatov, showing appreciation for all they have done for you, including bringing you into this world. People like to be independent; owing your life to two individuals puts a leash on that. Perhaps this explains why children try so hard to break away from their parents during adolescence; as they embark on a path towards independence and self-discovery, they find it difficult to take direction from and be so indebted to their parents, to whom they really owe so much.
As parents get older these dynamics continue to shift. Our egos do not want to believe that our parents can dictate our direction – even though we wouldn’t be here without them. Some parents use “Jewish guilt” to encourage us to help them, stoking the coals of rebellion and our ever-present search for independence. However, these parents may be correct in their goal of trying to get more help from their children. We can never finish paying our debt for all that they have done for us–and even more so, our debt to our Creator for all that He has done for us. This comparison explains why respecting one’s parents is on the same side of the luchos as those commandments that involve our relationship between us and Hashem.
When parents are old and infirm there are other issues that prevent us from giving them the proper attention. Our parents were guiding lights and we perceived them as being invincible; this makes it emotionally difficult to see them as needy, weak or incapacitated. When we were younger, they took care of all of our needs; with the passage of time we may need to be taking care of all of their needs.
Personally I find it emotionally challenging to be in this position. It is sometimes easier to help an elderly stranger than to help one’s elderly parent; the former does not involve the wrenching emotions of seeing one’s parents in a vulnerable state. This may be an additional explanation for why it is such a hard mitzvah, but we owe them gratitude and it is our responsibility to be there for them despite the difficulty involved.
Chazal tell us that at the time of redemption children will motivate their parents to grow spiritually closer to Hashem: “Ve’heishiv lev avos al banim v’lev banim al avosam.” In addition to taking care of their spiritual needs, children should begin by taking care of their physical and emotional needs. May we be zoche to the geulah when Hashem will heal all pains and return those who are no longer with us so that we will have another – better – chance to show our appreciation.
About the Author: Rabbi Gil Frieman is the pulpit Rabbi of Jewish Center Nachlat Zion, the home of Ohr Naava. He is certified as a shochet, sofer, and has given lectures in the United States, Canada, and throughout Eretz Yisroel. Rabbi Frieman is currently the American Director of seminaries Darchei Binah, Afikei Torah, and Chochmas Lev in Eretz Yisroel, and teaches in Nefesh High School, Camp Tubby during the summers, and lectures weekly at Ohr Naava. In addition, Rabbi Frieman teaches all tracks in Ateres Naava Seminary. He is a highly anticipated speaker on TorahAnytime.com where he speaks live most Wednesday nights at 9:00pm EST.
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