Rabbinic Reflections: Parental relationships

How can we best celebrate Mother’s Day–and Father’s Day for that matter? We know that a “Day” in the course of a year means little if its values are not lived many other days of the year. We also know that parent-child relationships are often quite complicated in ways that a card can never capture. A healthy parent-child relationship ought to serve as a foundation for how we might relate well to anyone.

I have struggled for decades to make a deeper sense of rabbinic teaching about how children should relate to parents. The ancient rabbis note that the Ten Commandments enjoin us to honor our father and mother (Exodus 20:11) and that a person shall revere their mother and father (Leviticus 19:3).

Why the change in the order of mother and father when shifting from honor to reverence? The rabbis suggest that fear of a father comes naturally (due to the strictness of a father teaching Torah), so we are reminded to honor our father. Likewise, we naturally honor a mother who encourages us, so we need a reminder to revere her, too (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin 31a). Putting aside the gender role assumptions, the rabbis end up telling us that we need both to honor and to revere a parent.

I asked my daughter what she made of this dual approach. She said something like, “A parent needs to be able to yell at a child climbing a dresser to get down and to hug that child lovingly.” I found her focus on the parent illuminating. A parent needs to be able to act in ways that encompass love and fear, compassion and protection. Children, as I read my daughter, need to learn that it is normal for an adult to be multi-dimensional.

What it means both to honor and to revere a parent is to recognize that humans are complex. Appreciating that complexity makes room for real relationships, relationships that can vary from one moment to another and in doing so abide. The rabbis go on in the Talmud to say that God dwells with those who get this appreciation. I take that to mean that the deepest relationships refract God’s infinite dimensionality. When we make space for someone else to be multidimensional, we let their divine soul shine.

Where does that leave us on Mother’s Day? Well, let’s start by opening up about what being a mother or father means beyond the platitudes of a special day. Let’s acknowledge that all of us, no matter what our family does or does not look like, are complex, and all the better for it. Then, let’s make room to honor and revere all of that.

Finally, I hope that in appreciating the fullness of another, we might just come to appreciate our own fullness. All of our relationships will be better if we come from that place of appreciation.

About Rabbi Jeremy Winaker

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hillel Network, responsible for West Chester University, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and other area colleges. He is the former head of school at the Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington and was the senior Jewish educator at the Kristol Hillel Center at the University of Delaware for four years. Rabbi Winaker lives in Delaware with his wife and three children.



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