Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18
Immediately after my daughter delivered a healthy and beautiful baby girl, I was privileged to enter the recovery room, where the newborn lay snuggled on her chest, covered by a thin sheet. As we pulled back the sheet to get a closer look, the baby startled. My daughter looked down at her daughter and said, “Don’t worry, I’ll protect you, I’ll keep you warm, I love you.” What an amazing moment to witness the deep, instantaneous bond between mother and child. (My son-in-law is staying at home with Helena and he is totally in love and totally subsumed with caring for his child.)
We take this incredible love for granted – which is what makes it so profoundly painful when children grow up and the bond between parents and children is severed. How often, way too often, I hear this terrible tale of parents and children who no longer speak to each other. I recently delivered a eulogy for a man who had not been in communication with his son for the final seven years of his life. His beloved life partner noted that this estrangement deeply affected his happiness in his final years.
In cases of serious emotional and physical abuse, yes, it is healthy to create distance. Yet, we see so often in families that children sever their relationship with parents over issues that could and should be overcome. Are your parents overbearing? Annoying? Manipulative? Perhaps creating some distance is a good idea, but these are insufficient grounds for cutting them off entirely.
This week’s Torah portion suggests that striking or insulting parents is a capital offense (Exodus 21:15, 17). This penalty was never actually implemented. The death penalty is extreme. The Torah uses it to emphasize the uniqueness of the parent/child relationship and the responsibility of children to protect that relationship by behaving in certain, specific ways toward their parents.
The 10 commandments teach us: Kabed et aveecha v’et eemecha, “Honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12). The Torah does not say, “Love your father and mother.” Sometimes, our parents are not lovable. So what? Simply by virtue of having given us life, we are required to treat them with a certain sense of gravitas. Rabbi David Teutsch writes that “merely the gift of life – the minimum the parent gives – creates a debt with a magnitude beyond measure, for we could not exist without it.” This is one of only two mitzvot in the Torah for which we are promised long life. The family is the foundational element of society. Lack of respect in the family is a warning sign with regard to all other relationships.
Adult children need to take the initiative to maintain contact with their parents and look for opportunities to spend time with and care for them. Find ways to include them in family activities and listen when they talk, even when they repeat themselves. You don’t have to take their advice, but you ought to listen with respect. Forgive their imperfections. Are you estranged from your parents? Think about building a bridge. Healing may be slow and it may be painful, but it is possible. Don’t let shame or insecurity keep you from reaching out to repair this essential relationship.
Parents also have a responsibility to be worthy of respect. They must model the values that they support, teaching children how to deal with the inevitable tension that arises in family life and how conflict can be a source of growth leading to even stronger bonds. They must walk that delicate line between offering support and guidance while creating space for their children to become independent adults. “The best security for old age:” writes Sholem Asch, “Respect your children.”