Friday, 17 March, 2017 - 12:00 pm

A Sunday school teacher asked, "Melvin, honestly, do you say prayers before eating?"

"No," little Melvin replied, "I don't have to. My mom is a good cook."

The opening of this week’s second portion, Parshat Parah, relates the law and ritual known as "The Red Heifer."

A completely red cow was slaughtered and burned, its ashes preserved with much care. If a person became spiritually contaminated through contact with a human corpse, fresh water from a spring was mixed with some of the cow’s ashes. This ash-water mixture was then sprinkled upon the contaminated human being twice during a seven-day period, on the third and seventh days. This cleansed him or her from their ritual impurity.

This was an essential part of Jewish life during Temple times.

Rabbi Eliezer was asked: How much does one have to respect parents? He said: Go and see what Dama, a non-Jew in Ashkelon, Israel, did for his father.

The Sages [during the Second Temple era] came to Dama to buy a jewel of extraordinary worth and beauty to replace missing stones on the High Priest's breast plate. The price was 800,000 gold coins. Dama's jewels were kept in a locked chest. The key to the chest was resting under the head of Dama's father, who was fast asleep. Dama would not disturb his sleeping father, and so he lost the sale.

For this act, continues the Talmud, G-d rewarded him. A red cow was born in Dama's herd. This type of totally red-skinned and red haired cow was extremely rare, for if a red cow has even two black hairs, it is disqualified. Generations pass without encountering a completely red cow. Now, Dama owned such a cow, which the Jews in the time of the Holy Temple desperately needed. The rabbis came to buy it from Dama. He told them: “I know you would pay me whatever I ask for the cow, but I will only ask you for the amount I lost on the jewelry deal because I respected my father.”

By telling this story, Rabbi Eliezer was teaching his disciples the extent of parental respect required by the Torah.

Why, did Dama not wake up his father who would have been thrilled to know that his son was about to earn such a profit?

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein explained that Dama’s father was mentally challenged, perhaps suffering from dementia.  Therefore, he was unable to appreciate the value of the deal and so would not have wanted to be woken up. Dama’s extraordinary greatness was that he chose to lose a fortune to honor his senile father, who would have been annoyed and perturbed by his sleep being interrupted.

I was deeply inspired when I read about a court case that took place in New York a few years ago, and the judgment ruling.

A landlord sued to remove a woman, Mrs. Houpouridou, from her rent stabilized apartment because she had spent several years in Greece looking after her sick mother who eventually died in Greece. Upon her mother's demise, Houpouridou sought to return to her apartment, but the landlord claimed she had abandoned it, as it was no longer her primary residence. The three-judge panel decided to allow her to remain in the apartment. One of the judges, Judge Douglas McKeon, with empathy for Houpouridou, not only restored her to her apartment, but in a most poignant yet pointed ethical statement expounded on his concurring opinion:

“There was a time in many cultures when the care of a sick or elderly parent by a child was the hallmark of familial responsibility. But, according to that frequently uttered refrain, times change. Mothers or fathers, sometimes both, would often live under the same roof with their offspring and the hands-on care provided would be substantial. To the outsider, considerable sacrifice seemed involved, but for the caregiver child, the care of mom and dad was the natural progression in life's journey; those who reared and raised, and gave life, would be comforted and looked after in the twilight of their own.

“Sad to say, as with so many old-fashioned values, adherence dims with each new generation, and parental care in some instances has been reduced to an occasional call to a nurse's aide or an infrequent, obligatory visit to a nursing home. But there are those, undoubtedly dwindling in number, who remain students of the old school, staying true to basic traditions and still giving life to words now seldom spoken: ‘My mother will never go to a nursing home.’ Ms. Houpouridou is one of those rare individuals and her heartfelt decision to travel to Greece to be at her mother's side during a final illness should not visit upon her the draconian penalty of forfeiture of her long-held regulated apartment."

How right this judge was. The majesty of the Mitzvah of respecting parents seems like a lost art today by many of us.

Each of us has only one set of parents, and they don’t live forever. We may disagree with our parents, we may feel they have made some big mistakes, we may have issues with them, we may have endured pain because of their decisions—our parents are not always saints. But we must still RESPECT our parents, simply because they are our parents and G-d chose them to bring us into the world. Even if they made every mistake in the world, they did one thing right: They produced us! Respect them at least for that!

Some people think that parental respect is based on what they give us today, but that is not so. We respect our parents because of everything they did in the past—conception, pregnancy, birth, child care.  Imagine a stranger saved you from drowning; you would be forever indebted! So too, we should be grateful to our parents who gave us life.

Why, asked the Maharal, was Dama awarded for his Mitzvah with a red cow? G-d could have found other ways to get him his money!

The answer is profound. Respecting parents is one of the most rational and logical Mitzvot of the Torah. In almost every culture it is considered a virtue and essential to civilization. The Mitzvah of the red cow, in contrast, is supra-rational. It has little to do with logic. It is considered the quintessential supra-rational law, which we do solely because G-d has instructed us so. By rewarding Dama for respecting his father with a red cow, a message was conveyed that the two Mitzvot are interrelated. Ultimately, respecting our parents is about respecting G-d—since it is G-d who chose them to be our parents, to be the people who would give us life. So even if cold logic argues that your mom or dad are different, we say: Treat it like the red cow. Do it because it is what G-d wants.

Not everyone is privileged to still have parents. Those who do are fortunate. Do not forfeit the opportunity to perform the incredible Mitzvah of respecting them. Call regularly, visit them, and make sure their needs are met. Do not wait until it is too late. If you are not on speaking terms, pick up a phone now. You will not regret it.

Ultimately, honoring our parents means honoring the entire chain of history. It means honoring G-d, our Creator, and it also means honoring ourselves. If our parents, who gave us our existence, don’t deserve honor, then we too don’t deserve any honor. And our children will remind us of that one day….

An old mother had to move in with her son and his family. When she became too messy, they built a baby table and wooden dishes where she could sit alone and make a mess.

One day, the son and his wife saw their child building a small baby table and asked him what he was doing. He answered, I am preparing this for when you get too old to sit at our table….

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

There are no comments.