When this column is printed, Father’s Day will be just around the corner. However, due to the Shavuot and Memorial Day holidays, I was asked to submit my article early. Hence, this article is being written on Mother’s Day, which happens to coincide this year with Lag Ba’omer. This is a serendipitous happenstance, as both days, in their own unique way, impart a life-enhancing message – the need to impart love and respect in the face of incompatibility.
Because of the timing, I will combine Mother and Father’s Day and refer to them as Parents’ Day – and discuss it in the light of Torah. As Jews, we don’t actually single out one day in the year, as our secular counterparts do, to show an emotional or physical connectedness to our parents.
As Torakdik Jews, we are expected to view every day as Parents’ Day. There are commandments in the Torah that exhort children to be constantly mindful of their mother and father, much in the same vein as we are exhorted to honor and be mindful of and “in touch” with Hashem, whom we call our Heavenly Father. In fact, many of our prayers begin with the words “Aveinu b’ Shamayim” which translate into, “Our Father in Heaven.”
Just as we declare our love and devotion and appreciation, our hakarat ha’tov, to Hashem several times a day through our prayers and blessings, we are similarly mandated to honor and respect our parents.
Depending on when you read this, it is either just before or just after Shavuot when Klal Yisrael celebrates Matan Torah. The Torah is the ultimate blueprint on how to live an ethical, productive and positive life. The Ten Commandments are the backbone and foundation of this celestially-given guidebook, and are listed twice in the Torah – in the books of Shemot and Devarim. Half of these holy directives revolve around our relationship to our Creator, the other half delineate our dealings with our fellow man.
The first of those pertaining to interpersonal relations is the commandment to “Honor your father and mother.” However, in the book of Vayikra (19:3), there is an additional mention of how to relate to parents; the word “honor” is replaced with the word “fear” and there is a reversal of the order of mother and father. From “Honoring your father and mother,” we are now admonished to “Fear your mother and father.”
There has been intense scrutiny and commentary by biblical and Talmudic scholars over the centuries over this subtle change. At a recent shiur I attended on this topic, there was an eye-opening insight to the time-honored answer that people typically love (honor) their mothers (who usually are softer and gentler) and fear their fathers, who are the disciplinarians and “tougher.” Hence, the command to honor your father and mother and fear your mother and father is asking us to go beyond our natural response to our parents. And the insight I gleaned is that doing just that – going against our natural inclination – is just what Hashem wants. Changing our “teva” – our ingrained biases and worldview – is an enormous hurdle we are tasked to overcome. The Torah wants us to fight our natural inclinations and do what doesn’t come easily.
I think that is the message to be absorbed from the horrific tragedy that ended with Lag Ba’omer. Up until that day, hundreds of the crème de la crème of Jewish scholars, the students of the sage Rabi Akiva, were dying, 24,000 of them in total who never realized their potential to be future gedolei hador.
The most common reason given for their untimely demise is that these brilliant and gifted students of Torah didn’t accord each other enough respect, in view of their lofty position as the talmidim of the great sage. Sort of like a king calling another king by his first name instead by his title – even though they are of equal royalty.
But I recently heard an interpretation that resonated with me.
As I understood it, this devastating calamity unfolded because these great scholars “didn’t agree to disagree.” Students who were study partners – chavrutas – were passionate about their interpretations of halacha and would not countenance or acknowledge any other interpretation. They disrespected the scholarship, opinions and views of their fellow Torah geniuses. There were dismissive of an outlook that didn’t mesh with theirs – even though those expounding these interpretations of Jewish law were on as high a level of scholarship as they were.
This explanation as to why thousands of upcoming gedolim died prematurely reverberated with me because, sadly, the “my way is the only way” attitude is all too prevalent in our frum communities.
Across the board, there is a blatant lack of respect and tolerance for another gadol’s Torah, and this unfortunate attitude undermines community achdus.
Agreeing to disagree goes against human nature, just like fearing your mother and honoring your father does. The Torah understood that people are psychologically wired to believe that they are right and the other person is wrong. (In extreme cases, people even indulge in morally wrong practices or are abusive to family and justify their behavior halachically.)
Perhaps that is why the Torah commands us to obey so many laws that don’t really make sense to us. Millions of people eat milk and meat and stay healthy – so why are we forbidden to? Why do we have to walk to shul in the pouring rain or sweltering weather, and not drive there – or at the very least hold an umbrella to protect us from the sun or rain?
Could it be that these laws are about developing self-discipline, about strengthening our will power and resolve, which in turn will fortify our ability to overcome our natural inclinations? Perhaps we are to go out of our comfort zone and, at the very least, respect halachic or political points of view that are different than ours.
With “Parents’ Day” in mind, I want to conclude by giving hakarat hatov to those men and women who heroically have stood up against what’s “natural” and embraced children who are not theirs biologically. Arguably it goes against human nature to unconditionally love a child not of one’s own blood. Yet there are many mothers and fathers who have wholeheartedly embraced and cherished sons and daughters not related to them. I am talking about stepmothers and stepfathers and foster parents and adoptive parents – and Big Brothers and Big Sisters who mentor children.
I remember years ago having a discussion with Naomi Mauer, co-publisher of The Jewish Press, regarding her constant traveling to family simchas and events. Her family is spread all over, and yet she made it her priority to go to every family occasion, big or small, to the best of her ability. She has several stepchildren and step-grandchildren as well as many of her own biological descendants but she told me that in her eyes they were all hers, and she was thrilled to celebrate their milestones with them.
A mind-opening example of the life-enhancing outcome of overruling our natural inclinations and attaining true ahavas Yisrael.