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Angela W. Buchdahl
Honoring Your Parents Is the Hardest Commandment (Rosh HaShanah 5775)

Angela W. Buchdahl  |  September 24, 2014

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What’s the secret to a long and prosperous life?

The bestseller list overflows with self-help books that have tried to answer that question. But the ultimate answer is laid out simply in our Torah, the bestselling book of all time. The fifth of the Ten Commandments reads: “Honor your father and your mother that you may long endure and fare well on the land that the Eternal your God is giving you.” Put simply:  honor your parents and you will live long and prosper.

As you and I sit here over the next ten days, examining our deeds of the past year and praying to be written in the Book of Life, our tradition presents a commandment that guarantees a long and successful life.  Last Rosh HaShanah, I spoke to you about the fourth commandment, on the benefits of making sacred time on Shabbat.  But the fifth commandment is the only one that actually promises a reward.

All we have to do is honor our parents. 
Easy, right?

Then why did Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a famous second-century sage, say that honoring your father and mother is the most difficult of all mitzvoth?

The. Most. Difficult.

We all know, sometimes all too closely, painful stories of parents who neglected or abused their children, physically and emotionally. You might think that in these cases, it is understandable why this would be the hardest commandment.  But in fact, our tradition exempts a child from the obligations of honoring an abusive parent. The commandment doesn’t even apply to children of such parents.

But for most of us in this room, we have loving parents who are human.  Who tried their very best.  Even if you have the most perfect parents in the world and you have a great relationship with them—and let me state for the record my parents and in-laws are sitting here tonight and they are wonderful—knowing how to honor parents is difficult, and relationships with our mothers and fathers are complicated.

It reminds me of a story: A young Jewish man excitedly tells his mother he’s fallen in love and he wants to get married. He says, “Just for fun, Mom, I’m going to bring her over with two of her friends and I want you to try and guess which one I’m going to marry.” The mother agrees.

The next day, he brings three women home and sits them down on the couch and they chat for a while.

He then says, “Okay, Ma, guess which one I’m going to marry.”

She immediately replies, “The one on the right.”

“That’s amazing, Ma. You’re right. How did you know?“

The Jewish mother replies, “I don’t like her.”

There is a fundamental tension between parents and children.  That tension comes down to difference: Our children are not us.

Our preferences won’t necessarily be theirs, neither will our passions, our strengths, our flaws.  We call having children “reproduction,” but we’re not reproducing ourselves at all: we’re producing an altogether different being. In his acclaimed book Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon writes, “We long for what may be life’s most profound compliment: our children’s choosing to live according to our own system of values. Though many of us take pride in how different we are from our parents, we are endlessly sad at how different our children are from us.”

Our children won’t mirror us, no matter how much we privately hoped they would. We have all met baseball-obsessed parents who can’t quite believe their kids don’t enjoy watching an inning, or musical parents baffled that their children can’t carry a tune. Outgoing parents frustrated that their kids are shy, driven parents who can’t bear to watch their kids procrastinate…

I could go on and on.  I recently had a father say to me with a certain helplessness in his voice, ’I don’t know how to spend time with my ninth grader anymore; we just don’t enjoy the same things.” 

Children are hardwired to differentiate themselves from their parents—but parents are hardwired to try to make their children as much like them as possible.  When you think about it that way, it can seem a little deflating, yes? Like a mismatched couple where someone’s heart is destined to be broken. 

And yet—what if we instead flip this reality and consider that our children’s differences are precisely their gifts to us.  Their differences expand our perspectives, knock us out of comfort zones, force us to examine our own expectations.  And that honoring us doesn’t mean emulating us, or becoming us.

In fact, our individual departures—big or small—don’t dishonor but rather honor our parents in their iconoclasm and independence.  And just as well, those grown-up children who never rebelled in their youth show honor through their constancy. But the true test of the commandment, whether or not our lives mirror those of our parents, is how the relationship is sustained across time.

How connected do we stay to our parents after we’ve made different choices?  How kind are we to our parents even when we vehemently disagree with them?  How forgiving are we of what we regard as their missteps, prejudices, unhealthy habits, or unsolicited advice? How do we make them feel crucial even if we no longer depend upon them?

For those children listening to this who are under eighteen, I’d ask you to push yourselves to think about this commandment more deeply than maybe you have before.  If not every day, then at least during these next ten days until Yom Kippur—these days when we’re supposed to give serious attention to how we live our lives, and who we really want to be.  “Honor your mother and father” doesn’t just mean “be polite” to them.  It doesn’t just mean thanking the people who are raising you for the food and clothing they provide, the guitar lessons, tutors, or the roofs over your heads.  Honoring them means trying to understand why they’re saying what they’re saying.  Why they nudge when they nudge, or hug you in public.

Sure, we all fly through our days, and it’s unrealistic to think you’ll stop and really look at your parents every time you’re running out the door to the next activity.  But for a moment—just a moment—see the person who loves you more than they have words to describe, who worries about you too much, who wants you to enjoy every blessing, and suffers when you suffer even for the smallest disappointment. 

Beyond that, I don’t think any rabbi can answer what it means to fulfill this fundamental commandment for you kids still living at home.  It’s for you to define what it means to honor your parents.  I’d only urge you not to wait too long to think about it.  You shouldn’t make the same mistake many of us did: we didn’t think about this commandment till we’d already violated it, time and time again. 

Because the truth is that this commandment is not really for the children in the room: it’s for us adults. The fifth commandment is for those of us who no longer rely on our parents for day-to-day physical needs or for financial or emotional sustenance.

We are now the grown-up children who are in a position to disregard our parents, simply by not needing them the way we used to, by forgetting to check in, or by being dismissive of their opinions.  Sometimes we’re impatient when they can’t hear us as well as they used to, or we tune out when they tell us a story we’ve heard before. Perhaps we’ve stopped touching them, we’ve stopped asking what they did last weekend, we haven’t suggested lunch in a while.

It’s precisely when parents are no longer critical in the primary sense, when we’ve done them out of a job, that Judaism says we need to remember to honor them most. 

And our tradition views the way we treat our parents as directly correlated to how we treat God. When a person honors his father and his mother, the Holy One says, “I view them as though I had dwelt among them and they had honored Me.’ It’s easier to obey and honor when your parents are still paying your bills, and fighting your battles.  But this commandment is for when our parents no longer do that for us.  Judaism asks us to affirm life beyond productivity—just to honor life. That is a true test of our humanity.

The New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast has a highly lauded new memoir about her aging parents.  She writes, “It’s really easy to be patient and sympathetic with someone when it’s theoretical, or only for a little while. It’s a lot harder to deal with someone’s craziness when it’s constant, and that person is your dad, the one who’s supposed to be taking care of YOU.“

Whether you are the child or the parent, there is often some sense of poignant loss in the relationship along the way, because everyone changes. We, who are parents, can yearn for the bond we had with our children when they were small—when they jumped to greet us at the door and we could heal every wound with a kiss.  Or we as adult children yearn for the invincible, all-knowing parents we had from our youth.  And some of us yearn for the parents we never had—because our parents weren’t loving the way we needed to be loved, or weren’t interested in our careers the way we wished, or didn’t approve of the people we chose to build our lives with.

A congregant recently shared with me that she had a wonderful, close relationship with her mother all her life. But now that her mother is almost a hundred years old, things have changed. Her mother has become judgmental, difficult. Completely unfiltered.

When this congregant shared her frustration with her mother’s caregiver, the caregiver asked her, “Why aren’t you more like your sister?  She has no problem with your mom.“

“Really?” the congregant asked.

“She comes over, and your mother starts talking, and your sister falls asleep on the couch. No problem.”  

It’s an approach.

It is much easier to ignore the transformation that happens as our parents age.  It’s sometimes too disquieting to imagine that one day we too will be less agile, more forgetful, less occupied, more wistful.  But the conversation that began when we said our first words to our parents needs to continue even now—and needs a discipline of directness and dependability.

How can we properly honor our parents without talking to them?  How can we properly honor our parents without trying to imagine what they feel right now?

An aging congregant shared with me, “Do you know what it’s like to labor to cross a street—to walk while always worrying I will trip?  Do you know what it’s like for my child to witness me being helped to the bathroom?  I didn’t mind the help as much as I minded my child witnessing that I needed it.” We cannot honor unless we begin to empathize. 

They say the most important sermons rabbis give are the ones we ourselves need to hear.  Last winter, my father was diagnosed with cancer. My sister and I have tried to get out to Tacoma with some regularity. We want to be with our parents. We want genuinely to help out. To honor them. But what that means is not always so clear.

Over Passover break, we swooped in, cleaned the refrigerator, replaced the microwave, set up QuickBooks for bill paying. We were there to save the day!

Then I suggested to Mom that we could hire a housekeeper to come every week and ease her burden, and truthfully, my own guilt. The house had gotten a little dusty. I could tell it had become harder to care for my father and to keep up the whole house.  My mother has never in her life had a housekeeper. That was just not the traditional Korean way. But we insisted.

I researched online and interviewed a service that seemed perfect. After the first cleaning visit, I asked Mom how it went.

“Well, she did a pretty good job,” she conceded.

I was thrilled she would accept the help.

“So you’ll have her back?” I asked.

“Sure,” she said. “She can come back next year.”

To honor is to make peace with who our parents really are. Today. Not who we remember them to be.  Not who we wish they could still be. We honor them, not just because they gave us life and taught us everything at the start, but because they’re ours.  Ours to honor.  Ours to embrace.

To honor our parents is to really see them. To honor is to ask yourself—more than once a year—what they gave you and what they continue to give you.  And if you no longer rely on them for anything, our tradition would say, that’s exactly the moment to honor them the most. 

The Hebrew word for “honor”—kavod—comes from the root for “heaviness.”  To honor is to give the proper weight and significance to those who raised us. If you sometimes wobble under the burden of honoring them, you’re probably doing it right. I hear many inspiring stories from our members who quietly live out this commandment, with its weight, every day.

Honoring is substantial and sometimes cumbersome.  But if you feel the heaviness of it, you will ultimately feel the lightness of it.  For our tradition reminds us that this essential act of honoring our parents is the key to a long and good life.

Will upholding this commandment literally add years to our lives?  Who can say? But how we choose to honor our mothers and our fathers—during their lives, during infirmity, old age, and after they’re gone—will set the model for our children, our nieces, nephews, godchildren, to learn how to honor not just us, but the elderly they encounter every day. 

There is a story of  Shmuel, whose aging father kept spilling soup on the table cloth because of his trembling fingers.  One evening the old man dropped a fine teacup and it fell to the floor and broke.  

“From now on you will eat in your room, father,” declared Shmuel.  “Here is a wooden bowl for you to use.  This, you cannot break!”

The next day Shmuel came home and saw his very young son sitting on the floor carving a chunk of wood.

“Dearest Yitzik, what are you doing?” Shmuel asked the boy.

“I’m making a bowl for you, father,” the son explained, “so you can use it to eat in your room when you are old and your hands start to shake.”

If you set the right example—with your love and your own sacrifice—the next generation will learn what it means to honor, and you will reap the benefits down the road. You will literally “long endure and fare well” in their care, in their memories, and in the memories of their children.

Honoring is passed down.  We are sowing with our parents what we’ll reap in future generations.

I remember the early days of being a mother, holding tiny Gabriel in my arms with exhaustion and exquisite wonder.  For the first time I could begin to comprehend how much my parents loved me.  This child was so helpless in my arms. I had to feed him, bathe him, he couldn’t even hold up his own head.  But this did not distress me or make me resentful.  He was the future. 

If we are fortunate enough to have our parents age, there may come a time when we have to feed them, bathe them, care for them.  We keep the fifth commandment when we hold up their heads—whatever that means to you at this moment. And what we don’t always realize is that this reversal of roles is not just a look backwards: it is also our future.

On these High Holidays, we call God “Avinu Malkeinu”—our father, our king. We see God as a parent-figure, who throughout our machzor asks us to take responsibility for ourselves as the new year turns, to look hard at our errors and make them right in the time that’s left. 

We may decide to ignore God’s message—to treat God as the aging parent, who has outlived his usefulness. But it is precisely in these moments of our self-sufficiency and even arrogance that this commandment comes to remind us that we must honor the source of our Life.  That honoring our parents or God is not contingent on what they can do for you. It is a test of who we are and what we hope to be.

Avinu Malkeinu, our merciful parent, help us…
To appreciate the differences between parents and children
To see each other with empathy and patience
To remember to value life at every stage.

Avinu Malkeinu, our merciful parent, hear our prayers…
so that we may honor our parents,
so that our children might honor us,
so that we will all honor you,
and live long and well in this new year 5775.


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