I’ve been reflecting on the days between Mother’s Day and the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, when we receive the Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Utterances, with my attention focused on commandment number five (Honor your father and mother). Thinking back to my teenage years about how I treated my parents, I pray that I will be judged by how I treat them today, and not how I treated them (especially my mother!) decades ago.
I will never forget the time during my freshman year in college when my birthday coincided with Mother’s Day. The year was 1988; May 8th to be precise. As someone who loves birthdays, I awoke early, wanting to celebrate for as many hours as possible. For as long as I can remember, my first wish of the day came from my amazing mother and so, of course, I expected my first phone call of the day to be her. Several hours passed and no call.
Hmmm…I hope she’s ok, I thought to myself.
By noon, I still had not received a call, and I began to dig in my heels, thinking that before I wished her a happy Mother’s Day, I needed to hear her wish me a happy birthday. The hours passed, and while the birthday wishes arrived from my friends and other family members, I still had heard nothing from my mom.
Feeling hurt and angry, I finally capitulated and called my mom and to this day, I am embarrassed at what came out of my mouth, and cringe every time I relive this event.
“Why haven’t you called me to wish me a happy birthday?!”
“Why haven’t you called me to wish me a happy Mother’s Day?”
And then we began to argue over who deserved precedence. In retrospect, I see clearly that my very self-centered nineteen-year old self was focused on me and my birthday.
My now much wiser, 54-year old self realizes that without my mom, I would not have a birthday; however, I was 19 at the time and could only see life from my perspective.
Fast forward 35 years and I’m ecstatic that I can celebrate Mother’s Day in person with my wonderful mother. I am keenly aware that each morning when I call my mom, I am eternally grateful to hear her voice on the other end.
It is so easy to take the presence of our loved ones for granted. I know that sounds cliché, but once someone who was an integral part of your life is no longer here in physical form, the reality sinks in much deeper. Why do most of us wait until our loved ones have passed on to appreciate them?
Fortunately, with maturity and growth, I have created a daily practice in which I express my appreciation and gratitude for the gift of still having my parents alive and living close by. I make sure to see them regularly, and we speak by phone nearly every day, sometimes twice or three times. Dropping off soup when they are sick, picking up groceries when needed, stopping by just to make sure they are doing okay—all of this has become my honor and privilege. Even with a busy work schedule and other commitments, even when I feel overwhelmed, I try my best to approach these tasks with mindfulness and love.
Of course, it’s lovely to have a special day devoted to our moms and dads, but shouldn’t every day be Parents’ Day? Indeed, the Torah thought so and made sure to include this value in its “Top Ten” list. As we move closer to Sinai, let us be reminded of the centrality of honoring our parents. I recognize that not all of us have close relationships with our parents. Many people experience challenges with their parents or no longer have parents who are still among the living. So, what do we do with these difficult relationships?
We read in the Talmud that honoring one’s parents entails, “providing them with food and drink, raiment and warmth, and guiding their footsteps [when they are old and infirm]” (Kiddushin 31 b). To the best of our ability, we are told to help take care of our parents’ physical needs. If emotionally it is too hard to maintain a relationship, we can ensure that they are physically cared for. For those whose parents are no longer living, we can observe their yahrzeit (date of their death) by reciting mourner’s kaddish and lighting a candle, donating tzedakah in their name, remembering them, and telling their story.
There are many ways we can honor our parents, whether we have difficult or beautiful relationships, whether our parents are living or have passed away. This core value is placed in the middle of the Ten Utterances, as the fulcrum of how we are instructed to live our lives. What comes before and what comes after is balanced on this core value.
How will you choose to honor your parents? How do you want your children to honor you? Whatever you decide, I hope it will bring meaning, peace, and beauty to your life.
Chag Shavuot Sameach-wishes for an inspiring Shavuot.
Amy Grossblatt Pessah is a rabbi, author, spiritual director and mom. She received her MAJE from HUC-JIR and her semicha from Aleph: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Amy has recently published her first book, Parenting on a Prayer: Ancient Jewish Secrets for Raising Modern Children. Her work has been featured in The Forward, Kveller, and Ritualwell. Amy lives in Florida with her husband; they are the proud parents of three young adults. Find her at A Soulful Journey.