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DO YOU HONOR YOUR PARENTS EVEN WHEN THEY DON'T DESERVE IT?

Friday, 9 March, 2018 - 2:17 pm

Things Mom Would Never Say:

“I skipped school a lot, too.”

“Leave all the lights on... it makes the house look cheerier.”

“Let me smell that shirt—yeah, it's good for another week.” “I don't have tissues... just use your sleeve.”

“Don't bother with a coat; the wind-chill has got to improve.”

Things Dad Would Never Say:

“Well, how 'bout that? I'm lost! Looks like we'll have to stop and ask for directions.”

“Here are a credit card and my new-car keys: GO CRAZY!”

“Mom and I are going away for the weekend... you might want to consider throwing a party.”

“Why do you want to get a job? I make plenty of money for you to spend.”

One of the things children love doing, perhaps more than anything else, is waking mom and dad during a sweet, delicious sleep. Mom worked hard all day and finally lays down for a power nap... but within five minutes her little angel brutally wakes her for a snack or to put on a video.

A legendary Talmudic tale passed down the generations has inculcated myriads of Jewish kids with a special guilt for waking their parents. A brief introduction is necessary to understand the story. The opening of this week’s second Torah portion, Parshat Parah, relates the law and ritual known as “The Red Cow.” In short, it went thus:

A red heifer (cow)—completely red—was slaughtered and burnt, its ashes stored and preserved with much care. If a man or a woman became spiritually contaminated through contact with a human corpse, fresh water from a spring or river was mixed with some of the ashes. The ash-water mixture was then sprinkled upon the contaminated person twice during a seven day period, on the third and seventh days. This cleansed him or her from the ritual impurity. This process was an essential part of Jewish life during Temple times—and now to the Talmudic story: Rabbi Eliezer was asked, how much must one respect one’s parents? He said, Go and see what Dama Ben Nitina, a non-Jew in Ashkelon (a city in Israel), did for his father.

The Sages [during the Second Temple era] wanted to buy from Dama an extraordinary jewel to replace missing stones on the High Priest's breastplate. [According to the Jerusalem Talmud’s version, it was the diamond “Yasfeh” that needed to be replaced. The price was 600,000 gold coins (some say 800,000).] 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 even a red cow covered with merely two black hairs is disqualified. Generations can pass without encountering a completely red cow. Now, Dama owned such a cow, which the Jewish people in the time of the Holy Temple desperately needed. The rabbis came to Dama to buy it from him. He told them: “I know you would pay me for the cow whatever amount I ask. 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.

Yet there is something amiss in this story. Let's apply a modern scenario to the above Talmudic story, and you tell me what would be the noblest code of behavior:

Richard Smith IV wants to sell his $100-million dollar building on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. He has a buyer, and he needs to close the sale by sending a confirmation email at a pre-arranged deadline. His father, Sullivan Smith III is asleep, and the laptop with all the necessary information is under his pillow. Not wanting to disturb his father's sleep, Richard Smith IV loses the deal.

When Richard’s father wakes up and Richard tells him what happened, what would his dad’s reaction be? If you were the sleeping father, what would be your reaction?

“Have you lost your mind? $100-million lost because you did not want to make me up?!” Any normal father would be thrilled for his child to wake him in order to strike such a deal. I would argue that a child who does not wake up his father in such a scenario would be guilty of disrespecting his father by acting against his father's wishes!

Why, then, did Dama not wake his father? He would have been thrilled to be woken for his son to earn such a profit!

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein suggested an answer. Dama’s father was, apparently, suffering from late-stage Alzheimer's, or Dementia. He was unable to appreciate the value of the deal. He would not have wanted to be woken up. This was the extraordinary greatness of Dama. He chose to lose the opportunity to make a fortune, in order to honor his senile father, who would be annoyed and perturbed by his sleep being interrupted.

A very inspiring court case took place in New York about 10 years ago (New York Law Journal, Dec. 22, 08, p. 27). A landlord sued to remove a Mrs. Houpouridou from her rent-stabilized apartment because she had left for several years to look after her sick mother, who eventually passed on, 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’s verdict was in her favor. Moreover, one of the panel members, Judge Douglas McKeon, poignantly expounded his opinion in a pointed statement:

“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." The Tenant 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. Some people say, if my parent is senile, what use is there is respecting them? They don’t even notice it!

This is the powerful lesson the Talmud is conveying to us with the story of Dama. Who would not wake his father? Dama wondered, who wouldwake his father?!

He may have Alzheimer’s, but he is your father. He brought you to the world. He is a part of your life—and you are a part of his. You must show him respect.

Why, asks the Maharal of Prague, was Dama awarded for his Mitzvah with a red cow? What’s the connection? Couldn’t G-d 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. It is part of the logical obligation to show gratitude. In almost every culture it is considered a virtue. It is 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 because G-d has instructed us so. By rewarding Dama for respecting his father with the Red Cow, the message was being 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 the gift of life. Even if your cold logic argues that your mom or dad are different, we say: Treat it like the Red Cow. Do it because that is what G-d wants.

You know the story about the parents who had their old mother living with them, and when she became too messy, they built her her own baby table with her own wooden dishes, to sit alone and make a mess.

One day, they saw their son building a baby wooden table. They asked him what he was doing. And he said: I am preparing this for when you get too old to sit at our table….

Shabbat Shalom and Chazak Chazak Venitchazek,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

Comments on: DO YOU HONOR YOUR PARENTS EVEN WHEN THEY DON'T DESERVE IT?
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