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Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and the Jewish way

Let us pause and consider what it means for us to truly honor our parents

Mother's_day_father's_day_and_the_Jewish_way image

Which of these applies to you?

•  You gave an ugly tie on Father's Day.

•  You sent flowers on Mother's Day.

•  You mailed a commercially prepared card on either Mother's or Father's Day.

I imagine that most of us checked "yes" to at least one of these questions. After all, who could be against a day to celebrate mothers and fathers? Certainly not retailers. This past year, Americans spent $37 billion to say "thank you" to all the mothers and fathers. That is an awful lot of ties, flowers, candy, and dinners to demonstrate your love for a parent. 

We can thank Anna Jarvis for beginning a campaign for this country to set aside a day to pay tribute to our mothers after holding a memorial service for her own mother at St. Andrew's Methodist Church in 1908.  In less than a decade, President Woodrow Wilson assigned the second Sunday in May as a national holiday honoring mothers.

After hearing about Anna's idea, Sonora Smart Todd decided to devote a day for father's as well.  Sadly, her suggestion was a little slow to catch on.   Even with the help of New York Associated Men's Wear Retailers who had an obvious financial interest in seeing the day make it to the American calendar it took until 1972 for President Richard Nixon to sign the day into law.

While I am all for celebrating our nations' mothers and fathers on the dates contained in the American calendar, we would do well to acknowledge the distinctive approach that the Jewish tradition brings to this idea. We are all aware that honoring our parents is of such importance that it is placed in the Ten Commandments. 

But have you ever considered the words that the Torah uses in this regard? It does not say: "celebrate your father and your mother," nor are we commanded to "love our mother and father," but rather the Torah commands us to kabed, to honor them. 

Here, one might well ask: if the Torah can command us to love the stranger as well as God, why not command the same of us for those who brought us into the world? To this, some have argued that the love that a child feels for a parent is instinctual and thus does not need to be commanded. But as we are all aware, when it comes to our emotions, well, it's complicated.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik was one of the great rabbis of the 20th century. On the subject of the Torah's use of "honor" instead of "love," the Rav observed that the halachah (Jewish law) makes no attempt to regulate the emotional side of the parent-child relationship. As a result, our actions can be commanded, but not our emotions. From this perspective, the Torah gives children permission to distance themselves from their mothers and fathers when such a need exists.

But as the command to honor a parent reminds us, the relationship may not be severed. The well-being of our children is the responsibility of the parent, and as we age the opposite is true.  This idea is especially important in a world where it has become increasingly common for people to gather on holidays with their "chosen family" and not with their biological relations.

Let us enjoy the cake or the flowers, the cards, and ties on Mother's and Father's Day.  But as Jews let us remember that the command to honor our fathers and mothers cannot be reduced to a day on the calendar. This year let us pause and consider what it means for us to truly honor our parents. 

Rabbi Michael S. Siegel is Senior Rabbi and The Norman Asher Rabbinic Chair of Anshe Emet Synagogue.

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