“Thou shalt honour thy father and thy mother!” ~ The Fifth Commandment
Our first teachers are our parents.
My teacher, Yehudis Golshevsky, recently delivered a compelling discourse on honouring one’s parents, marking the first anniversary of her father’s passing, or yahrtzeit. Among Jews, it is a customary mourning practice to gather with loved ones on this occasion, reflecting on and commemorating parents annually as they transition to the next realm. This ritual involves sharing fond memories and imparting words of the Torah.
According to the Rabbis of the Talmud, adhering to the fifth commandment is challenging. They attribute this difficulty to the inherently “complicated relationships” that often exist between individuals and their biological parents. These complexities, they suggest, may necessitate a lifetime—and even extend beyond—to fully navigate and comprehend.
To illustrate this point, one can turn to the story of Andre Taylor, a former pimp recently appointed as Seattle’s Street Czar by Mayor Jenny Durkan. Despite unreservedly confronting his past, Taylor has openly discussed and grappled with it throughout his life. To gain insight into the intricacies of such relationships, one needs to look no further than the life and experiences of individuals like Andre Taylor.
“God brought me from the gutter; my mother was a prostitute; my dad was a pimp. I was born from the womb of a prostitute by the seed of a pimp. But the context is this is my mother and father, and regardless of how society has seen them, there was no way I could see them in that light… they hugged me, they loved me, and they cared for me and even though society says this is the scum of the earth this was not my reality.”
Rebbetzin Golshevsky reflects on the profound challenge associated with fulfilling the mitzvah of kibud av v’eim, as identified by the sages of the Talmud. This commandment, highlighting the importance of respecting parents, is seen by scholars as particularly challenging. The difficulty comes from being born into a specific genetic and historical setting without our choice. Many people often wish for different parents or a different time period.
The Chayei Adam explores the challenges of honoring parents in halachic terms. It suggests that the difficulty lies in our thoughts and attitudes, necessitating deep self-reflection. Ibn Ezra, a medieval scholar, echoes this, emphasizing that emotions towards parents can remain powerful and even become obsessive in adulthood. This emotional intensity may obscure the profound debt we owe to our biological parents, making it unfortunate that gaining the necessary insight to show proper respect and care often takes considerable time for many people.
Rebbetzin Golshevsky openly shares her personal journey, alongside her father, in a video with her family and students. She vividly describes the substantial transformations they underwent as they grew together, emphasizing the intricate nature of this evolving process. The insightful discussion begins at the 7:14-minute mark.
In a poignant moment, Rebbetzin Golshevsky recounts her father’s poignant request for specific songs to be played at his yahrtzeit as he approached the end of his life. Little did he anticipate that this commemoration would unfold on Zoom during a pandemic. Remarkably, his dear friend Michael, situated in Jerusalem, played his favorite tunes on the piano — Gershwin’s “Autumn Leaves” and Ray Charles’s “You Don’t Know Me.” The musical tribute commences at the 45:14-minute mark, adding a touching dimension to the commemoration.
In the midst of this challenging year marked by the pandemic, our family gathered virtually on Zoom to honor the yahrtzeits of my beloved parents, Esther Edith (Z’l) and Eliezer Leslie (Z’l), both pictured below. This meaningful commemoration served as a poignant tribute, allowing us to vividly remember and celebrate their enduring legacies. The virtual platform became a canvas through which we brought them back to life, sharing cherished memories and stories, and allowing the next generation to catch a glimpse of the remarkable individuals who preceded them.
Reflecting on the past, I am reminded of my dear Mother, Esther Edith, who, in the twilight of her life at almost ninety-nine years of age, would humorously declare during our Passover seders, “If not for me, none of you would be here!” These virtual commemorations not only honor their memory but also serve as a beautiful way to preserve and transmit the essence of our family’s history to those who follow in our footsteps.
In honoring our parents, we acknowledge the profound significance of the fifth commandment — a timeless directive echoed in various cultures and traditions. Our parents are undeniably our first teachers, guiding us through the intricate dance of life. By remembering and celebrating our parents, we not only show gratitude for their love but also pass on the valuable lessons they taught us, ensuring our family’s essence lives on for future generations.