Shemot: 5772 — Heavyweight Division

19/01/2012 at 13:05 Leave a comment



“Heavyweight Division”

 Parashat Shemot

Neil F. Blumofe

14 January 2012


We have formed a new opportunity in our community – called the Kavod Committee – where sons and daughters acting as caregivers can gather monthly to speak about their own challenges in providing for parents.


With its wisdom, Torah opens up ample opportunity for us to explore issues and dilemmas that are closest to our heart.  At present, one of the positive characteristics of our community is our diversity – the many folks connected to Agudas Achim have a wide variety of viewpoints, opinions, and outlooks that keep conversation lively and interesting as we seek ways to understand each other and develop compassion for attitudes that may be markedly different from our own.  Over the years, many of us have seen an ebb and a flow of interest and attachment to synagogue life as our children come of age and as our own paths and situations rise and fall.


Yet, even in our assorted mixture, we all hope to share the common denominator of our own aging, as fraught as it may be.  And over the years, while we encounter the changing face of our life, many of us too find ourselves in a situation of lending support and caretaking not only children – but our own parents, as well.  Seeing our parents becoming elderly and in some cases, infirm – either in mind or body – can be incredibly painful.  Not only acting as a portentous light for what may lie ahead of us, and activating our own fears– seeing the ones who raised us in a position of vulnerability and limited circumstances and decline, can bring us profound sorrow and guilt on top of increased responsibilities and meetings with folks and agencies whom we barely knew existed, before.  For the child who becomes the caregiver, the industry of aging is a cavernous and lonely place.


It is striking that through Moses, our Torah commands that love God – v’ahavta et haShem Elokecha and that we honor our parents – kabeid et avicha v’et imecha.  Which is a greater mitzvah?  Which is more difficult to perform.  One can always be in a relationship with love – falling in and out of it is the hallmark of an honest and committed relationship; however, honor is a different thing – it is facts on the ground – it is determined by our own actions.  Honor gets us out of our place and demands that we are thoughtful and generous – it is the active extension of love.  Love not acted upon, while cozy, remains theoretical.  Honor commits us to a practice of relationship – and not a relationship where we reap absolute benefit.  Practicing honor puts another first, before our self and thus, is more difficult to enact than love.  I think that the Torah recognizes this – as we are presented with the 10 Commandments twice – in Exodus and in Deuteronomy – the first time mentions that as one honors a father and a mother, in turn, the child will have long life – and the second time, the commandments promise that with honor not only comes a long life – and also a peaceful life and even a good life – although, some may tell you, aiding a parent who has dementia, it is hard to see where the good life actually begins.


Can we honor our parents without loving them?  Our Torah instructs us that we must.  In our lives, we have a period of wanting to grow away from our parents – to leave them and establish independence – as Moses does with Pharaoh, the man who raised him.  In fact, although not the established narrative, one can read the entire encounter between Moses and Pharaoh as a dynamic in family breaking and bonding.  Moses wants to leave, is compelled to leave, yet can’t.  Pharaoh has his heart hardened and his worldview become smaller, time and time again – not able to unclench his hold on the boy who grew up in his home and finally, he suffers an unbearable pain – the rupture of relationship – what our Torah calls the 10th plague — the death of the firstborn, one can read as a permanent severing of relationship between father and son.


Reading the relationship between Moses and Pharaoh in this way – one can see that Moses makes a definitive choice – he chooses God over Pharaoh.  As he is learning, it becomes an absolute situation – either one or the other – either in or out – either involved or not involved.  Compare this position with Rabbi Akiva, a sage found in our rabbinic literature.  It is said about Rabbi Akiva that as his mother got older, she became senile, and she would often walk out in the street barefoot, and behaved too in other ways that appeared to be quite embarrassing.  Our tradition claims that Rabbi Akiva, who was renowned for his teaching and his authority, would get down on his hands and knees in front of his mother and put his hands down under her feet, in order that she not get cut or bruised as she walked.  Even in this extremely difficult situation, our tradition teaches, that Akiva found within his diminished mother – even at that moment when it was unsure that she was even still there – that he found a connection to God.  Beyond the absolute confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh — Akiva, within the turbulence that he must of felt – the conflicting emotions, the inconvenience, and the dread – he found perhaps, the thinnest of threads of God to love within her.  Can one look to recognize a sliver of love within an otherwise trying and opaque situation?  Can one overcome very real and understandable emotions  — perhaps feeling that elderly parents are more of a nuisance than a blessing.


Honoring a father and a mother involves us in a great spiritual practice.  Honoring our parents is not the same thing as feeling obligated to honor them blindly – rather, it’s about a deeper inner gratitude for their having given us the gift of life.  Obligation is toxic – honoring is joyful — obligation is toxic – honoring is joyful, and it is with this practice of recognizing the link in the generations – that even in the pain of hearing the same story told over and over and repeating information for the thousandth time – or buying diapers for those who have raised us, we are in this world because of them – because of an act of love or desire that they practiced, we are able to give voice to our own life – that there but for the grace of God we may also go?


May we constantly improve with the guidance of our tradition – may we see that all things are not black or white – as practiced by Moses in Egypt – that Akiva’s behavior was a bit extreme and that there is honor involved when making sure that our parents are safe and receiving proper care.  Finding something – some sliver of God or grace when engaged in care giving that can be all consuming is a lifeline that can help us and all in our circles.  Knowing that we are not alone can be an incredible comfort – acknowledging pain and frustration can be healing and can bring us to an additional level of appreciation of our own humanity.  Knowing our limits can bring us strength to honor our parents well.  May this new opportunity – a space within our community to come together, continue to build our relationships together honestly – and that despite our different opinions on other things, we can be united in our support for each other as we tend to our parents in days of frailty, exposure, and insecurity through similar circumstances that we all may yet share.


Shabbat Shalom.


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Vayechi — 5772: “Praying in Hebrew” Leviticus: Tazria/Metzora — “The Illusion of Influence (5772)

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