Rabbi Simon Jacobson: Good evening, this is Simon Jacobson. Tonight we’re competing with the Super Bowl—I guess only our loyal listeners are tuned in here. (I hope I didn’t remind anyone to tune into the Super Bowl now!) But you may find some interesting stuff here on this show as well…you can always catch the game in progress. Excitement always happens in the second half anyway..
Last week we had a fascinating show with Stephen Dubner, a good friend of mine and author of the book Turbulent Souls, and we spoke about parental influences and how to educate children when you believe in an absolute system of religion or morality while allowing children the freedom to grow.
When I was thinking about what to talk about this evening, a friend mentioned to me that he had a question that someone had asked him about how one honors parents who don’t seem to deserve honor. Then later in the day another friend asked me the same question, completely unrelated. So I guess that’s a sign that that’s the topic that should be addressed. I know it’s a very painful one, but at the same time a very relevant one to many people.
It made me think about the discussion we had last week with Mr. Dubner, about the issue of imperfect parents. Parents really do get a real bad rap, especially in our generation with everyone baring their souls in confessionals and the healing and recovery movement, but there’s a very good reason for it: parents definitely do shape their children.
At the same time, if you look into the Torah, for Jews particularly (yesterday was the Torah reading that included the Ten Commandments), the fifth of the Ten Commandments is “Honor Your Parents, i.e., honor your father and mother.” The Torah goes even further and promises that in the merit of doing that, you will have a long life. As a matter of fact, when the Ten Commandments are repeated a second time, in the final book (Deuteronomy), it even adds another element there: that you will not just have a long life, but you will also live in peace, and have a good life.
So tonight we’re going to address this issue of honoring parents. Every one of us has been a child, continues to be a child (hopefully our parents are alive), so it’s a very relevant topic and I welcome calls on all issues related to this topic (1-212-244-2050). I must say that many of us are very angry about this issue, so anger also relates to it because people have a lot of anger against their parents, against their childhood, the way they were hurt when they were still vulnerable and impressionable.
So what exactly are our obligations to our parents and what is this whole concept of honoring them anyway—particularly in a situation where on one end of the spectrum you don’t really feel that they deserve it, and on the other end there was even severe abuse; parents who have hurt their children in very profound ways. Issues that children have with parents who continue to haunt them, the scars that we pick up on different levels of abuse, whether it’s overt or subtle. How do we address that and what exactly is this fifth of the Ten Commandments of honoring parents?
I especially would like to hear from people who are very angry with their parents and also of course people who are very loving toward their parents. It will be interesting to hear from you the different dynamics in our relationship with our parents.
Last week I asked Mr. Dubner the following question, which we all have to ask ourselves: On the one hand, you look to your parents as your source of nurturing, a source of comfort, which even unhealthy parents definitely provide somewhat (I’m not talking about extreme cases of course) and at the same time, how do you separate the two feelings of love and hurt? The same parents who love you, have, on the other hand also hurt you?
For a child, even for an adult, it’s very confusing, and it becomes a very snowball type of combination of the good and the bad. As adults, we have the intelligence, the discretion to be able to distinguish.
But as children, that distinction isn’t that obvious and that’s a big quandary, because if you got from your parents healthy nurturing, and on the other hand they may have given you certain values that you really can’t embrace, or values that you see real faults in (you know, “the lies my father told me”), it’s the first time you realize that your parents aren’t perfect.
This is a serious issue. I’d like to begin by giving some perspective here, namely, the anatomy of what exactly the commandment “honor your parent” means.
Now, the real question that’s asked in Jewish thought, in Jewish philosophy, is a more fundamental one. Judaism does not believe in any intermediaries. In other words, we have a direct relationship with G-d. There are no partnerships, no intermediaries, no hired guns; each of us prays to G-d. G-d gave us a soul and empowered us with the ability to overcome our challenges in life. We have a mission. As I very often say on this show (Toward a Meaningful Life), “meaningful life” implies a direct mission that we have, a meaning and purpose in our lives. And that is a direct relationship with G-d.
So the question is asked, “Where is there any room for honoring anyone besides G-d?” It’s true, parents may have provided for us. Of course, if they were healthy they gave us nurturing. Many parents are selfless in their love and in their dedication to their children. But honoring your parents seems in some way to imply that parents have some type of partnership with G-d…but we should be honoring G-d alone who gives us life.
The Talmud does say that there are three partners in the birth of a child: the mother, father and G-d. The parents provide, so to speak, the stuff of which the body is made. G-d provides the soul. That’s why you can have a relationship between a man and a woman, a potential father and mother, husband and wife, and it doesn’t bear a child. So G-d is the third partner — the Creator of life.
So seemingly, birth should be honoring G-d, not the parents. We don’t recognize any form of “partnership” with G-d in creation. And one of the fascinating answers to this is that when we honor our parents, even healthy parents, we’re not honoring our parents, we’re honoring G-d who gave us life through our parents.
So, in essence, it’s really a recognition of G-d. For instance, there is a distinct law in Judaism that if parents tell a child to do something that transgresses G-d’s law, meaning the ethical laws of how we behave with each or other or any type of Divine law, any law that G-d dictates, the child does not have to comply with that request of the parents, even though there’s a commandment to honor your parents. But the commandment to honor your parents does not supercede the commandment of G-d because you honor your parents not because they have power or because they think they’re important, or because they provided for us, you honor them because G-d gave life to us through them.
And that’s a major distinction. That’s why if one has to choose between following a parent’s request and following G-d’s law, we defer to G-d. Honoring your parents is not an end in itself: there’s a meaning there, a significance, a spirit behind it — it is a means to honor G-d.
Now the interesting distinction that I’d like to make as well is that the commandment says, “honor your parents”; it doesn’t say “love your parents.” The Torah doesn’t tell us to love our parents. That means the commandment doesn’t include that. Honor can include that, but that’s an optional thing. There is a commandment to love G-d. There is a commandment to love your fellow. Why isn’t there a commandment to love our parents? Because they don’t always deserve our love. But if we dishonor the life that G-d gave us through our parents, then it’s not that we’re dishonoring our parents, we’re dishonoring ourselves, we’re dishonoring our own personal life.
So let’s go to the phone. I have Helen here on line one.
Caller: Thank you Rabbi. This is like some sort of omen from G-d. I am of the Jewish faith, and I lost my husband about eight months ago. Since then it’s been beyond agony. The insults: why didn’t Dad do this, why didn’t Dad do that… I only have one son. Why don’t you move to Florida? I’m ashamed to be with you. I have a million friends. We only had two-three people at the funeral. You don’t have any friends. You don’t look right.
Jacobson: Who is this speaking?
Caller: My one son. Every time he talks to me he just drags me down through the mud. I don’t know how to answer.
Jacobson: This is your son speaking to you like this?
Caller: Yes. He hardly sees me. He tells me, “I’m busy, I’m working late. I have two little kids.” And then when he speaks to me on the phone, it’s such abuse. There are things I can’t even tell you over the radio. I was in the car once and he said, “Get out.” It’s unbearable abuse. I don’t think we deserved it. “Why didn’t Dad have more money? Why didn’t he invest like other men?”
Jacobson: Helen, I feel deeply for you. I’m a parent myself. No individual, particularly a child, has the right to be abusive to anyone, particularly a parent who has provided for him, and I really feel for you. I’m sure our hearts go out to you in the listening audience as well. I will address both sides of the coin, because obviously, the commandment of honoring your parents, even in a situation where someone may feel justified not to, or even if something that their parents did to them was inappropriate, honoring your parents is an unconditional commandment. And that’s why it doesn’t say “love.” Because if the commandment was to love your parents, that couldn’t be unconditional because there are situations which may not warrant love.
But honoring, as I said, is honoring the life that was given to you. Now, if a parent, in addition to that, also earns your respect, then of course the honor extends to the parent’s personality as well.
But I’m talking now about the minimum. There’s a story in the Talmud of (I believe it was) Rabbi Akiva, the great sage, whose mother at an older age became senile: she would often walk barefoot out in the street, and behaved in ways that were quite embarrassing. It says that Rabbi Akiva, the great teacher, would get down on his hands and knees and put his hands under the feet of his mother so she shouldn’t get cut and bruised with her bare feet on the ground.
He could have said, “Well, my mother is senile, my mother is incapacitated, she should be locked up.” He recognized and respected in his mother the power of G-d’s gift of life. But again, he was seeing the G-d that worked through his mother. And I’m sure in his case, his mother was also quite healthy in rearing him. But the point is that the responsibility of a child to a parent is a very profound one, and in our day and age, which is another topic altogether, you see so many children when their parents grow old really just look at it as a nuisance and try to either get them out of the way and just come for the token Father’s or Mother’s Day with a tie or a some flowers. It’s sad to see, and it’s really part of the discussion as well, but I’m trying to begin, firstly, with the approach of what is it that we are honoring exactly, and what do we do when we have all that anger?
In the case, for instance, of Helen’s call, of a son who behaves that way, it’s simply abominable and unacceptable, because even if he should have complaints to his mother, he has no right to reciprocate and no right to be unhealthy in turn.
There are ways to deal with that which I’d like to address. But first let’s go to the next call. We have Rochelle on the air.
Caller: I’m calling because I want to know what happened to Mike Feder.
Jacobson: Okay, thank you for that call. Mike Feder, for those of you who are unaware, has been co-hosting the show with me. Last week I did the show with Stephen Dubner, and in the next few weeks, I’ll be doing the show alone. Mike and I remain good friends, and we’ve been experimenting with different formats. Actually I had an interesting discussion with Mike about the show and we felt that there are certain issues, for example, that taking calls vs. having an intelligent conversation with Mike (which is always a great delight),don’t always jive, so we agreed to experiment with some different formats. As a matter of fact, I used to be a guest on his show on WBAI several times and those shows were really fascinating as well as our shows together on Toward a Meaningful Life. So you’ll be hearing from Mike. Stay tuned and I’ll let the audience know what’s going on.
So back to the topic, how to honor parents who don’t seem to deserve honor. This, of course, touches upon the responsibility of the parents, and the responsibility of the children.
Now this idea of honoring parents is really honoring the G-d that gives life, which is honoring your own life. Because what often happens (and I’m taking one scenario) in the case where parents have done serious damage (when I say damage I mean that on a psychological level they have hurt the child), and in a very legitimate way, the child is angry and has been affected by it, that’s has a serious impact on children, who were vulnerable at the time. It’s a very serious thing that when G-d gives a life as a gift to a family, instead of honoring that gift, they in some way take it for granted and don’t provide for the child a nurturing affirmation.
So one scenario would be that the child grows into an adult, and now has a mixed “love-hate” relationship with the parent or even a cut-off point where they can’t really communicate well because it always turns into some big argument, or even a loving relationship that is masking some deeper fears or some deeper pain that exists.
You know, it’s the typical family situation where people go to their token parties, the annual get-together, and take the photos, but beneath the surface is simmering a lot of anger and pain. So the question is, the challenge to us (and the commandment to honor one’s parents is a challenge to us), how do we rise to the occasion? What do we do with this situation?
I think it’s critical to understand that this is not just about your parents, it’s about yourself as well. Because part of the effect—the negative or detrimental effect—of unhealthy parenting on a child, is that the child may begin to lose his or her self-esteem, self-confidence that is cultivated in a home that is nurturing, welcoming, and makes you feel that you really belong.
I remember once seeing a moving episode where one of our contemporary healers, (I think it was John Bradshaw) was doing a seminar/workshop (I saw it on video) in a room of 50-60 people, and he had everyone close their eyes and depict and envision what it was like the moment they were born. And he says, “Remember, now, you’re being cradled by your mother at her chest, and you hear her heartbeat.” And an actual recording of a heartbeat is played in the room, which is a very soothing sound; it has a certain symmetry, a certain rhythm, like water rushing. And you hear the heartbeat beating and he begnis speaking about how you’re being welcomed into the world. The mother is saying “I hold you close to me. I’ve been waiting for you for many months. I’ve prepared a special room for you with a special bed. Whatever you’ll need in your life you can always turn to me. You always belong no matter what happens in your life. Things may be difficult, but remember there’s always someone who holds you near her chest, who holds you to her heartbeat,” and the warmth that the mother infuses the child … Literally, everyone in the room started crying because obviously the exercise was meant to show the contrast of how many of us really feel regarding that type of belonging and nurturing.
But that’s really what a healthy parent is doing. It’s an invisible message because obviously the child doesn’t understand the physical words “I love you,” or “I want you.” But there’s a sense of belonging, of knowing that there’s someone who holds you, and that there’s a rock-hard foundation that you can always depend upon. It is simply that foundation in life that gives us our sense of self-esteem and dignity; the sense that we belong, that we can do anything we wish.
Without it you can have all the tools—the intelligence, the emotions—but you don’t have that security. So a parent is supposed to provide that. Now, you grow into an adult and they didn’t provide security entirely, that leaves an insecure adult.
Even in the healthiest of homes (because we live in a very materialistic universe where parents are involved in business and at work), there’s always a level of absenteeism, some would even call it a subtle abandonment that exists, even in the best of situations. But, of course, even in the worst situations, one can’t compare it to overt abuse.
So what do you do with that? The Torah’s injunction, commandment, to honor your parents is really a challenge to us. It’s not just about your relationship with your parents, it’s about your relationship with your life. Remember, what your parents gave you was life. And if they did not provide to you the healthiest type of nurturing, it’s not just a question that now I’m going to get even or that they don’t deserve my respect, what happens to your life? Do you also dishonor your life?
So honoring your parents is like telling you to honor the life that was given to you, even if your parents were almost incidental, or they did everything possible to crush that life. In the worst scenario, the life is still there. Should you dishonor the life, you will become not only a victim of your parents, but you will continue to loathe yourself and dishonor G-d and your own soul.
So therefore, honoring your parents is really about our connection to G-d. Now it’s interesting, in the Ten Commandments, we all know that Moses came down with the two tablets. (Incidentally, the two tablets are often mistakenly drawn with oval tops. The truth is, the Talmud says that the tablets were actually rectangular—they had four corners and were not oval on top.)
So when he came down with the two tablets on which were written the Ten Commandments, five of them were inscribed on one tablet and five on the other. And in the holy books it tells us that the five on one tablet were the laws and the commandments between human beings and G-d (in other words, our relationship with G-d—as we see in the first commandments “I am the L-rd your G-d,” “Don’t create other gods,” “Don’t blaspheme G-d”) and the second tablet contains the next five commandments which are between man and man, human relations (“Thou shalt not steal,” “Thou shalt not murder,” “Thou shalt not covet”).
Where is the commandment to honor your parents? It’s the fifth of the first tablet; the fifth of the laws in our relationship with G-d. Now, one can easily argue that honoring our parents falls under the category of our relationship with other people. But if you bear in mind what I’ve been saying, you’ll realize that honoring your parents is actually one of the laws between us and G-d, it’s a relationship with G-d. It’s not between you and your parents. Obviously it spills over and in a way you can even call it an intermediary between the first five commandments and the next. Maybe that’s why it’s the fifth—because it carries G-d over into the next dimension. In other words, it’s how G-d plays itself out in human relations and then that carries over in how we treat others, but it’s ultimately about the sanctity of life.
And in that circumstance, no matter what, honoring your parents is an absolute commandment without conditions, because in the worst scenario, honoring life is the key. G-d is essentially saying that even if you had parents who did not deserve your honor or respect or love, since you were born through them, honor that element.
Now what does that mean practically? Well, we’ll get to the practical in a moment while I take a small break here.
You’re listening to Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson. We’re on every Sunday from 6-7pm on WEVD 1050AM on the dial. This show is brought to you by the Meaningful Life Center, which I am privileged to head, and you can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We also have a new and developing website which offers transcripts of these radio shows plus a lot of other exciting material. We invite you to visit the website at www.meaningfullife.com. Your communication impacts and shapes the thrust and direction of these shows, because it’s all about life, meaningful life, how to find meaning in life, just as the topic of honoring parents from tonight’s show really came from grassroots questions that I received (not that I don’t have any issues with my parents, I must say, because the fact is that although they are relatively healthy, everyone has his or her issues) so I really welcome questions. You can also reach us at 1-800-363-2646 (1-800-3MEANING). I’d also like to welcome everyone in the tri-state area to join us for my Wednesday Night Class, an extension of the show, every Wednesday evening at 8pm, at 346 W. 89th St., on the corner of Riverside Drive.
Now, we’re talking about honoring parents and we’ll go to Leslie on the line.
Caller: Hi Rabbi. About seven years ago I lost my Dad and I was saying the Kaddish prayer for him, and I also know in coming back to my Jewish roots that the son carries on for the father with tzeddakah and all of that, but I was saying Kaddish today for some relatives who were lost in the Holocaust that I really never knew (my Mom had asked me to say it). And no matter what synagogue I go to, it seems like they’re going to the track. These guys are saying Kaddish very fast. And I am just coming back to my roots and starting to read. How would you suggest, since I’m trying to honor somebody’s memory, that I go about getting them to slow it down.
Jacobson: It’s a very legitimate question, and I thank you for the call because the fact is, unfortunately, you go to a synagogue and often the services are almost done like lip-service. I would, practically speaking, go over to whoever’s saying Kaddish, or the rabbi or someone you see who is learned or respected in the minyon, or quorum, who is praying, and simply say that you’re someone new to this and you’d like to say the Kaddish, and it’s a very personal experience, and if possible could it be said in a slower way so we could all take it in.
I think if you do that in a non-challenging way, usually you’ll get a good response. There will always be some obnoxious people who look down at that, which I find extremely distasteful and antithetical to the concept of Kaddish, but that’s what I would do just to create the kind of environment where people are sensitive. And I think that your call is quite significant…
I was reading recently some reviews on a fascinating book by Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor at the New Republic, and though he’s a non-observant Jew, being a self-proclaimed agnostic, he wrote this fascinating study called Kaddish, where he talks about his whole metamorphosis, his whole catharsis, of the year that he dedicated himself to say Kaddish.
Now, just for the record, let me explain what Kaddish is. Kaddish is the traditional Jewish prayer that is said after the passing of a parent. Kaddish is said by the child three times a day, and in this case, Leon Wieseltier actually assumed that type of tradition, and he discusses in the book what it did for him and his whole growth. He had to really face his own doubts and his own questions. So Kaddish is one of the most profound traditions, because it really touches upon the issue of honoring your parents not even in this lifetime but in the life afterwards. In other words, as the Zohar says (the classical book of Jewish mysticism), honoring your parents is a command that you can fulfill even after their passing.
It’s actually a law in the Torah which is that the honoring of your parents continues on, which is why you have the tradition of Yizkor on Yom Kippur and other occasions, the idea of remembering and commemorating your parents. It’s one of the most moving things to see a child, no matter what age, even a child who’s now a grandfather, go into a synagogue and dedicate and remember his or her parents, because memory is one of the most powerful forces that we have.
So that honor continues even afterwards, and that’s something that I’d like to touch upon. But first, let’s go to Daniel in New York.
Caller: Hello Rabbi Jacobson. I have a question. I’m temporarily separated and I have contact with my children. One time, before I left home, I was very upset with my older boy. He was then 14 years old. I was angry, not directly at him, but at my partner, and I got very angry and got very physical with him.
So I want to know, how can you regain the trust that you had and get your son back to the place that you had before?
Jacobson: I’m always moved by these questions because people really bare their soul on the air and I am honored by the confidence in me, and I’ll try to respond in kind.
When a parent has abused the trust of a child: you hurt a child and the child says, “I can’t trust you anymore, I can’t turn to you,” and particularly if the parent was wrong in doing so, I think the single most important thing is accountability and recognition that “I made a mistake.” You see, young children think their parents are G-d, that they are perfect. Often, the insecurity of parents as their children grow is projected onto the children by cultivating the type of attitude that we are superman and superwoman, mother and father, which often is essentially a way of masking and compensating for the insecurity of the parent.
However, it’s extremely healthy that a parent at some point shows the child that he or she is not perfect. The parent doesn’t have to tell the child “I’m imperfect,” but at the same time doesn’t try to project some type of false image. Children learn from honesty. Remember, a child loves his parent naturally, as a parent does the child. However, we’re human beings and we make mistakes.
Accountability is the key. Trust is not built on perfection, as many people are often mistaken by thinking, but trust is built on accountability, because you can trust that if a person makes a mistake, and we all do, they will be accountable.
I think the best thing you can do, Daniel, and I say this to all of us as parents since we all make mistakes, and often bad mistakes, is be accountable. You can’t just go buy the love of a child and say, “Okay, I’ll never do it again.” You can do that a few times but then the child is disappointed enough that he or she won’t come back. And the child cries. The key is to be accountable and show that you’ve actually changed.
I often hear parents tell me, “So we weren’t such great parents when we were young. Why does my son or daughter have to take it out on me now?”
I say to them, “My friend, you know, you may have caused such damage that that child can’t forget. You forgot because you were just an adult acting out. But you’ve left an imprint. Remember, a child is like a warm ball of wax. Every imprint on that wax has an effect forever. The child remembers it forever.”
So they say, “What can we do?”
Change something. Yes, it’s hard for an adult. Change something. If you really sincerely change something, the child will see it. And that’s why you can’t just say, “Let bygones be bygones and let’s just forget the past.” No, you have to do something that actually and sincerely shows change. Remorse is not enough in most cases. It’s important that we do something. And Daniel, I think if you do something, your child will reciprocate. It may not be immediate, it may be down the line, but remember this: You have nothing to lose. What will happen is that you will have become a more honest person, and you will have grown from it, and there’s no doubt that the growth of a parent has an impact on a child, even a child who’s completely cut-off.
So we go now to Yosef on the line.
Caller: Hi Rabbi Jacobson. My name is Yossie and I have the honor of attending your class every Wednesday. Basically the reason that I’m calling is that I have not spoken to my mother for approximately four and a half years. The main reason why I haven’t and why I’m still not touching base with her is because of the abuse that she put my father through. A little bit of courage that I have is because I saw from King Solomon, from Mishlei, where he writes, it’s better to sit in a deserted place than seeing a woman who is filled with anger and bitterness.
But at the same time, as you opened the show today, I was thinking that it says at the same time, a wife who is filled with fiery wrath, but it doesn’t say if the mother is filled with anger and with bitterness.
In any event, I feel that something that blocks me from growing spiritually and physically is that, like you said, a person has to honor the element of life, and the fact that your parents, despite what they put you through, still gave you life. So if you don’t love yourself, you cannot transcend that and give love to others and then to bring it to a higher dimension.
So I just want to know how I can go about this.
Jacobson: Okay, Yosef, thank you for the call. It’s my honor to participate with you as well in the Wednesday Night Class. To respond to your question, each case is a different one and has to be dealt with on a case by case basis. It’s hard to make generalities.
However, I would say this. One of the practical things I was going to address is the question: so how do you honor that life that came through your parents and with the emphasis on “Honor your parents.”
And that’s also, by the way, the reason we say, “Honor your parents and you will live long” because the way you honor life is the way it reciprocates in your own life, that it gives you long and good years.
So how do you honor that with a parent whom you can’t really communicate with? Or that you’ve decided that for healthy reasons it may be better to stay away from them, because every time you’re with them it just infuriates you, it’s not good for you, it’s not good for them.
There are indirect ways of honoring your parents, for example, through prayer. You can pray for the soul of your mother or father. You can pray that they should see the light. That they should heal. That they should come to understand their own soul. That they should perhaps forgive themselves and their parents as well, which is often the case.
That doesn’t mean that you have to be in the proximity and in the line of fire to receive abuse—that’s why it’s often important to pull away—but to pray for their soul. And actually there are two opinions in Jewish law whether one is supposed to honor a wicked parent. Maimonides says yes and another commentator, the Tur, has the opinion that we’re not supposed to honor a wicked parent.
So, you see, the difference of opinion is not necessarily because there’s no honor there. The question is how that honor should be expressed. And honoring a wicked parent means that you are honoring not the wickedness obviously but the life that they bore. And you pray for that parent. And one would say Kaddish for that parent, G-d forbid, after that parent passes on, because you always believe that the soul remains intact. Not only your soul, but the soul of your parents as well. Because remember, that’s where their life began as well. So we’re sanctifying, we’re celebrating the sanctity of life in general.
Practically, in your case Yosef, I have to know more of the details of the situation, and I welcome you calling me after the show or at some other point, or emailing me, and I will be happy to try to respond, because I really have to understand whether there was any effect on you, or if it’s only your anger about her behavior toward your father. Is your not talking to her helping the situation or making it worse? It’s really important to evaluate it. By talking to her, will you be hurt? There are factors here that need to be addressed before I can comment.
But meanwhile, the minimum is to pray for that parent, because the interesting thing is that we don’t want to get caught up in the same trap of spiting ourselves and saying, “You know, I’m so angry that I’m cutting off a part of myself.”
You want to be able to be a good parent. There are many people who, because they had bad parenting, don’t want to become parents themselves, and this just exacerbates and magnifies the problem, because you allow the holocaust to continue in the next generation.
The key is to stop the pattern, stop the poison. So thank you for the call. We go to Bob.
Caller: Yes, this is about a compulsion to engage in sex with pay, prostitution. I feel like I’m ready for a more permanent relationship but it’s hard to do. What do you suggest?
Jacobson: I don’t really see the connection between that and our topic here, but I guess it’s a good question in any case, when a person has a compulsion in any given area that’s unhealthy, the key is to channel it in healthy ways. My suggestion is to find a person, a partner or a person that you can marry in a healthy way and have a good, healthy relationship. I mean it’s a simple ABC type of suggestion, but since I don’t know more details, I believe that the issue is channeling our energies, even when they are acted out or in some way compulsive, to channel them in healthy ways.
Okay, so let’s get back to our topic. For some reason I always gravitate toward talking about some of these abusive and negative topics, not because I take any pleasure in that, but because they happen to be real situations that I think need a forum, and need a platform to be able to communicate because so many of us have been silenced. There are so many of us as adults who don’t really address this issue, and we express our anger and our rage and our inadequacies in all kinds of unhealthy ways.
That’s why I really feel like it’s an honor to be able to address a topic like this. And what we’ve been talking about is honoring your parents and how to honor them when they don’t seem to deserve honor.
I should say, on a happy note, that there are many of us who really do have very healthy parents, and I think it’s a tribute and we should take a few moments at least to acknowledge the fact that there are many factors and many elements in parents that are very healthy. Of course, in that situation we don’t need an explanation why we should honor them, yet, I still think that even in the case where there is a healthy situation, each of us can honor our parents in a deeper way when we recognize that we are honoring the parent not because he or she was healthy, and not because we were given a lot. Those are additional (albeit excellent) reasons.
But you’re honoring your parents for a deeper absolute reason: because they are part of the chain of life. They are part of the chain that brought you where you are, that gives you the resources and allows you to make your contribution in this world.
Now if parents, as I’ve mentioned, earned that right, and have provided that nurturing, then we have of course a commandment to honor them (not just for the life that was given to us through them, but) also for providing for us. And this honor is fundamental to our relationship with ourselves, with G-d.
But I was emphasizing of course the other side because usually you don’t have to discuss honoring parents in a situation where parents are healthy and everyone’s happy. No one would have the question why we should honor them.
Yet I was discussing issues where often the eclipse of the sun teaches us more about the sunlight—situations where we don’t always seem to feel the need or see the ability to have that honor.
Okay, we have Barbara from New York on the line.
Caller: Hi Rabbi. Thank you for taking my call. I’ve been listening to your program and I wanted to ask you a question about how to handle a situation. I haven’t spoken to my parents for nearly five years. They really do not want to have anything to do with me or my family…
Jacobson: You made that choice or they made that choice?
Caller: Actually, a fight ensued and I told them that I really didn’t think I could see them anymore, that it was just too painful, and then they did some really horrible things and disconnected their phone. I don’t even know what their phone number is.
I haven’t had any communication with them at all. So I haven’t spoken to them at all, and recently it came to light that my father is very ill. My brother and my aunt told me that, and I did send him a card with a little note on it saying how sorry I was to hear that and that my thoughts and prayers are with him, but I haven’t heard anything back.
So I’m worried now about what to do and how to handle it in case he passes away soon. He is 83 and I know he’s ill and I’m really not sure how to handle this.
Jacobson: Well, let me just ask you, Barbara. What is the reason, if you can capture it in a sentence, of what created this rift? Does it go back to your childhood or is it something more recent?
Caller: I guess it’s all the way to my childhood, but basically, I had seen them and been with them for the entire day doing a lot of what I thought were wonderful things with them, and then I didn’t hear from them for like three or four months. My daughter had been ill and I called up because I needed to talk to them, and they never called me back to ask me if she was okay. Then Thanksgiving was coming up three or four months later and I still hadn’t heard from them so I called up and they didn’t want to talk to me.
So I said, “Look, let’s just drop it and we just won’t see each other anymore.”
Jacobson: What do you think is the reason for what happened?
Caller: I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.
Jacobson: So you have no idea why your parents reject you.
Caller: They’ve always favored my brother over me and they made that very clear.
Jacobson: Both your father and mother, right?
Caller: Mostly my mother. My father has been swayed unfortunately over the years. And I have a lot of really good memories about my father and I guess that hurts me a great deal, but I really don’t know how to handle this in case he does pass away soon.
Jacobson: Do they live close by?
Caller: I live in Westchester and they live on Long Island, so it’s only an hour or two away.
Jacobson: Well, personally, if I were you, unless I hear another reason otherwise, I would pick myself up and go visit him. Because exactly the way you’re saying, if he’s about to pass away or if he’s really ill…
Caller: The problem is that what they did to me last time was they called the police in their town and told the police that I was harassing them which was not true and they told the police to tell me never to contact them. When the policeman called me and told me this I was in shock and then they sent back some presents that I had given them and I haven’t heard from them since and I’ve had no contact with them. And I spoke to my brother about seeing them, and he said, “I wouldn’t go over there if I were you, they may slam the door in your face, they may call the police.” So I haven’t made any contact with them.
Jacobson: Do you have a good relationship with your brother?
Jacobson: So maybe you can say to your brother, “I really want to see Dad. So maybe I can go with you, you and I, let’s go together,” and then create the environment. And then he can tell your mother, “Come on, behave like a mensch,” or something like that. That’s what I would do. I would insist. Even if you told me that you feel so sore that you just want to cut yourself off completely… But I hear in your voice, Barbara, that you have to pick yourself up, ask your brother to go with you, go visit your Dad. Forget about the past, you just want to see your Dad who’s not well, wish him the best—both as an obligation as a child and the fact that it will do good also for him to see that.
Jacobson: Because this may be the last opportunity to see him. And I would just tell your brother that you want him to go with you. And prepare the ground if necessary so you can preempt any situation with the police. Your brother, I guess, can intervene. Your mother won’t call the cops on him, right?
Caller: No I don’t believe so. Okay, thank you very much for your help.
Jacobson: Well, the calls keep coming in about people who either don’t speak to their parents or who can’t relate to them (we’re always going to hear more about the negative stories) which are painful to hear, but it is a reality.
I just want to say on a more mystical and Kabbalistic note, honoring your parents is really reflective also of a mystical concept, so I’ll try to capture it in a nutshell. The name of G-d, the Tetragrammaton, in the Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism, is made up of four Hebrew letters: the yud, the hei, the vav, and the hei, which really in a sense capture all of existence. It all begins with the yud. The yud is like a dot, a point: the point of conception, the point of departure, the beginning. Then comes the hei, which spreads out and develops into a more developed idea. Then comes the vav which is like a line, a vertical line that draws the energy downward, and then the final hei where it’s expanded in the recipient.
So in other words, any flow of energy, any type of transmission of communication from teacher to student, begins with a point of departure, expands, is transmitted, and then expands again in the recipient.
So the yud, kei, vav, kei [for purposes too detailed to go into here, the hei is written and spoken as kei, when the letters are said in sequence] is really in microcosm, in a sense the blueprint, or you can call it the building blocks of all of existence including our psyches.
The Kabbalah explains that the yud, kei, the first two letters, are compared to father and mother, and the last two are compared to son and daughter, which of course includes all children. Honoring your parents (on a mystical level it is also an internal, personal experience) is essentially the fusion and the union between the parent within your psyche and the child within your psyche, in other words, between your intellect and your emotions: intellect being compared to father and mother and emotions being like the children of our thoughts so to speak. Dishonoring your parents, or being unable to honor them, in a sense, does not allow that circle to be complete. So we see here that it’s not just a question between human beings—even internally, personally, psychologically, there’s a certain circle that needs to be completed, a certain cycle, and that cycle includes a point of departure, the expansion which is compared to father and mother (kabeid es avicha v’es imecha—honor your father and mother) and the children, meaning the results or the products, honoring that completes the circle.
Now I hope that was clear. It is somewhat mystical, but at the same time it captures an essence that all these commandments, (and actually I don’t even like to call them commandments, because commandment has a negative implication that you’re being commanded to do something. No one likes to be commanded to do anything. A better word actually is “connection”) are really connections to our psyche, our soul and to the entire cosmos.
Today, we live in a time when everyone wants to be connected, whether by telephone, email, cell phone, fax, but also psychologically, “connections” implies a type of open channel and open flow, and the connection of honoring parents is really an opportunity and a challenge to us of how to look at our own lives, how to create that type of flow between your own, so to speak, parent and child. For instance, when all our activities, in a way, are a result and the fruit of our labor, in essence, that’s a parent/child relationship in our personal lives.
Honoring the root, the source, of where the fruits and where our activities come from is not just the right thing to do, it also creates the connection, the connection to the past, the honoring of the life that was created. And it just shows us how a commandment, or the connection called honoring parents really is a very all-encompassing one that affects all of existence, both personal and interpersonal, and on many, many different levels.
And of course I was addressing this evening the issue of how we deal with the situation of honoring your parents when your parents seemingly doesn’t deserve it, to the point where you can’t even communicate with them. Even there, there’s room for honor, as I said, through prayer and through other methods that we do in our own personal lives.
But the key is never to cut ourselves off to the point where we cease to honor the life itself.
We have time for one more call. Shelley is on the line.
Caller: Hi Rabbi. I’m concerned for the first lady who called you in tears over the way her only son was treating her. I feel that your advice subsequently (during your show tonight) is for the sons or the daughters who have been hurt by parents. And you addressed them with great kindness. But what about the children who are very rude and abusive to their parents and ungrateful, like the situation of the first caller tonight? She needed your compassion and your advice.
Jacobson: I agree. I wish I could get in touch with Helen again.
Caller: Right. I feel so concerned that the next caller directed you to the children’s problems with their parents, but I know so many parents who are in grief over the way the American children treat them rudely.
Jacobson: Shelley, that’s a very good point and I would love to dedicate another show to it, but on a personal note, I would love to get in touch with Helen, if she’s still listening, because obviously the most important thing is that a parent has to get out of the line of fire and danger of a child who is really abusive.
I’m sure that I or others can help her, wherever she may be, and just make sure that there’s protection, because children can sometimes be very abusive and violent, and I really am concerned for Helen. But overall, I agree that we really do need to dedicate a show and talk about the issue of how parents deal with “abusive” children, which can be equally painful or even worse than the first problem. Even if that abuse from the child may be justified (not the abuse but that the anger of the child may be justified—the abuse is not), it is definitely a good topic and I will address it. I appreciate the call and I give you my word that I will address this topic.
We’re winding down here. You’ve been listening to Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson. We’ve been talking about honoring parents, both those who deserve it and those who seemingly don’t and what it all means.
As usual, it’s a topic that came from you, and I’d like to acknowledge that by saying that this show is supported by listeners such as yourself. This particular show was underwritten and dedicated by Mark Siden and I want to extend my thank you to him for that. I really want to welcome everyone to participate in trying to help us keep this show on, to have topics like this discussed, about children, about parents, about issues that really perhaps aren’t even discussed on other shows. So we invite you to make your pledge and contribution to our non-for-profit organization, the Meaningful Life Center. Please call 1-800-3MEANING (1-800-363-2646) so we can continue to bring programs like this to you.
It’s my honor to speak to you all and I hope you’ll join me again next week on Toward a Meaningful Life, every Sunday evening from 6:00-7:00pm on WEVD 1050AM. Thank you.