I am writing this article from 41,000 feet, as I make my way to Connecticut to visit my mother, who is recovering from bypass surgery. Despite the high stress of the past two weeks, this experience has provided me the opportunity to consider anew what may be the most challenging of all the Ten Commandments to keep, the obligation to honor one's parents. It has also reminded me that teaching our children about Judaism is all the more powerful when it happens outside of the classroom.
"Honor your father and your mother; that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God gives you," is the fifth of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:12) It sits between the first four commandments, which are about our relationship with God, and the last five commandments, which instruct us on our relationship with others. It has been suggested that the commandment to honor one's parents serves as the bridge between these two types of relationships that the Torah demands of us. It has also been suggested that the reason we are offered a direct reward for fulfilling this obligation (most commandments have no reward connected to them) is because it is so difficult to be mindful of this expectation, either because we are young and lack self-control, or because as we mature we are unable to adjust to a new relationship with parents we first met as youngsters. Our rabbinic tradition, recognizing this struggle, reminds us of the importance of this mitzvah in the Talmud by relating that "when a person honors his father and his mother, the Holy One Blessed be God says, 'I view them as though I had dwelt among them and they had honored Me'" (Kiddushin 30b).
When my daughter asked me why I was leaving for a week to take care of my mother, I had an important opportunity to remind her of the Fifth Commandment and that family stands at the core of Jewish life. "That's a Jewish way to live," I explained to her from the front seat of the car, "we do whatever we can to care for those who are sick, that's the mitzvah of bikkur holim, and when the visit is to your parents, you are also doing the mitzvah of respecting people who have given everything to make you who you are."
Even if my daughter didn't understand everything that two minute exchange on Braeswood Boulevard was intended to convey, she did kiss me goodbye at Hobby Airport the following Sunday, and saw Jewish values in action as I waved goodbye. The week will be hard for my family, but I believe that she will gain something very powerful from the experience. My daughter saw me living my Judaism in real-time, and making tough choices to balance my responsibilities as a parent and as a child to my parents. I hope the experience becomes part of what fashions her Jewish identity.
Although I hope she never has to make this type of trip for me, I do believe that seeing her father board the plane teaches her that our family's Jewish values are part of the very fabric of who we are and the choices we make each day.