I lost patience recently and directed some unkind words toward my mother. She asked are you mad at me because I haven’t been feeling well? That soul-searing question reminded me of Torah’s lessons about parent-child relationships.
Torah states that the person who “curses” a father or mother shall be put to death. I doubt that Torah meant for such a harsh result. In biblical times, such a death would have been by stoning. The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra suggested that this rule applies only to a curse that invokes God’s name. By that limiting understanding, the prohibition is about reverence for God.
On the other hand, modern translations state that one who “insults” his father or mother shall be put to death. The broader translation lowered the standard for stoning. As I may have insulted a parent on a rare occasion, I am troubled by this translation.
In the ten commandments, Torah directs us toward always honoring our parents. Consistently honoring parents may seem an unrealistic directive. The parent-child relationship is often highly emotional and sometimes troubling. Some parents may not be deserving of respect. Their children struggle with the obligation to assist an abusive and aging parent.
The challenge of caring for parents has been a mixture of love and sacrifice, dedication and frustration. Even in “normal times” adult children of aging parents suffer as well. Those adult children seem to become a parent to their own parents. The role reversal alone is unsettling even for the healthiest of family relationships.
Assisting older parents during this pandemic tests the mettle of many adult children. Every action to assist an elderly parent is more complicated and emotionally agitating. We battle to make doctor appointments, show up for telehealth sessions, and second-guess the need to go to an overcrowded hospital. Everything that was routine is now complex. The kindest and most caring of adult children lose their cool under trying circumstances. Sadly, the easiest target for expressing frustration and disappointment is the elderly parent.
As the adult child caring for a parent in the time of covid, I’ve had to navigate what the Torah demands of me. The stress of being a caretaker in a time of covid can make the saintliest child a bit of a sinner. The task is hard, the day is long and the job is never done. Please forgive me mom if I offer an unkind word or get impatient. I might do it again. Yet, I’ll try to remember what I think Torah teaches; honoring a parent is supposed to be like honoring our relationship with God.
Rabbi Evan J. Krame