Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Parsha Thought - Kedoshim

At the beginning of this week's Parsha is the sentence איש אמו ואביו תיראו - Each man shall fear his mother and father. On one level it speaks to adults, who are obligated to observe mitzvot. One must not sit in a parent's chair, contradict a parent publicly, and so on as set forth in Yoreh Dei'ah Ch. 240. On another, superficial level and in keeping with outdated child-rearing practices, the sentence can be understood as meaning that children ought to be afraid that if they misbehave their parents will beat them or do them some similar physical harm. Spare the rod and spoil the child (itself a sentence in Mishlei) - literally. Praise God, few modern Americans of any religious persuasion raise their children that way, and those who do risk trouble with the law. For those who are tempted to beat their children, know that you will be the last person on earth that your child comes to with a problem. I and my wife run a nonviolent home by conscious choice. My children, to the best of my recollection, never even saw me take off my belt in the course of undressing; I did not want them associating my belt with horror stories they might have gleaned from schoolmates. So what is the meaning of "fear" in the context of parents and children? Hazal tell us that parents are partners with God in making a child; when children honor and fear their parents it is as if they honored and feared God and, God forbid, the other way around. Thus, we can acquire insight into this fear from the concept of yir'at Hashem, fear of God. At first children do mitzvot because they fear physical punishment from God - or from their parents! This "fear" soon evaporates; few of us are afraid that God will strike us dead if we eat on Yom Kippur or live with our wives at the wrong time of the month, but we continue to live Jewish lives because we develop a deeper fear. We become aware of God's majesty reflected in the world and we feel His presence in our lives (see my earlier post, see also here). In modern English (and most of our translations of Tanakh are in medieval English) such fear is referred to as "standing in awe" of someone. The majesty of God is so evident in His creation and in current events, in particular the events that we are about to celebrate in Hodesh Iyar, that we want to be avdei Hashem. Our parents are such good people that we naturally look up to them and want to be like them. But are they? If you're a father, take a good look at yourself in the mirror. Take it from me; if the image in the mirror is that of a pregnant woman your children will have a hard time looking up to you. Are you teaching your children (or having them taught) the concepts of lashon hara and rekhilut and then indulging in idle (or, worse, malicious) gossip about third parties? Are you telling them about the importance of honesty in one's dealings with other people, Jews and Gentiles, and then inventing all sorts of excuses for being less than honest? Do you insist that your children fulfill their responsibilities at home and school, and then use every trick in the book to get out of jury duty, in the absence of a military draft our only obligation to our country (other than paying taxes) that entails significant sacrifice? Worse, do you then complain that Brooklyn juries don't deliver justice, as most of us did in the Lemrick Nelson case? Do you cheat on your taxes and then complain about the quality of government services (see here)? As a parent, then, I read the sentence as a challenge to parents: Be the kind of people that your children, and others, can stand in awe of.
As Nisan winds down, we hope and pray that Mashiah will appear before Rosh Hodesh. But if the conditions we live in have tainted our souls, made us all teme'ei nefesh, so that we don't deserve the completion of the ge'ula in Nisan, we'll take it in Iyar. Ha-meivin yavin.

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