Respecting our parents seems to become more difficult as we get older. When we were small, we didn’t really have much choice. We were totally dependent on them. Then we became adolescents. Not easy then to fulfill the Fifth Commandment. “Honor thy father and mother” is much easier said than done for a teenager for whom autonomy is the call of the hour.
But it seems to me that it gets even more complicated as we ourselves become mature adults. What happens when a parent is aging ungracefully? What if they are becoming irritable, cantankerous and just plain difficult? Becoming old and forgetful isn’t pretty. And it can make a child’s responsibility quite a challenge.
Perhaps that is why the Torah (Bible) tells us: Ish imo ve-aviv tira’u—”A man shall revere his mother and father.” Ish means “a man,” or an adult. In other words, the Torah is telling us clearly: Even when you are an adult, you still have the moral obligation to show respect and reverence for your parents. It doesn’t matter that you are the world’s busiest executive, or that your social calendar is filled with important events. You are still a child. That person helped bring you into this world, fed you, clothed you, changed your dirty diapers and educated you. Yours is a lifetime debt of gratitude.
The late Rabbi Yirmiye Aloy, of blessed memory, told an interesting story of when he was visiting the United States and looked up some old friends who were living in an old age home. He asked them whether their children visited them regularly. One old man’s answer was a quote from the Book of Psalms (68:20):Baruch Hashem yom yom—”Blessed is G”‘d day after day.” Rabbi Aloy was most impressed. “Every single day your children come to visit you? That’s fantastic!” “No, Rabbi, you don’t understand,” explained the old man. “Yom yom, two days a year—Mother’s Day and Father’s Day!”
There is no question that there are times when the best thing for older people is a caring, well-run institution. The least we can do then is to visit regularly.
And the longer people can be independent, the better. But, without trying to lay guilt trips on anyone, let me share an example I myself experienced as a young boy growing up in Brooklyn, New York.
My grandmother passed away, and my grandfather, Rabbi Yochanan Gordon, of blessed memory, came to live with us. I had the privilege of being his roommate, on and off, for some twelve years. At times, I would help him with the accounting for the gemilut chesed fund that he operated from the house. This community free-loan fund was distributing over a million dollars in interest-free loans annually. I also remember helping him cut his toenails, which were difficult for him to reach.
But far more than I helped him, he helped me. He was a special role model for me. Though he wore a rabbinical hat and a long beard, he never preached. His presence and his personality were enough of a message to me as a confused adolescent searching for my way in life. Without his quiet inspiration, I would probably never have become a rabbi. He never even knew what a profound influence he had on my life.
So, while it may be true that older people can be difficult—I remember Zaideh being impatient and irritable at times too—the rewards far outweigh the sacrifices.
Oh, there’s one more thing: At the end of the day, the way we treat our parents is likely to be the way our children will treat us.
Excerpted from the book From Where I Stand by Rabbi Yossy Goldman. Available at leading Jewish booksellers.