The Velvet Kippah
Wishing the Worst for Parents
With religion or without, it is important—especially from the standpoint of the Judeo-Christian tradition—to credit Tsing Loh with what is most important: she does take care of her father. Together with her siblings she ensures that he has the necessary help to care for his health and well-being. She may want him dead, but much of the quality of his life today owes to her good deeds.
Herein is the irony. A religiously connected child might not behave differently. Tsing Loh's dad is not necessarily getting short-changed by the absence of a religious ethos in his family. Tsing Loh is the one who is coming up short. While her sentiments are horrid, she does not abandon her father. She complains, but she still does pay for his care, in cash and in time. Despite all her ratiocination, she cannot cut anchor from some subliminal sense of duty. She leaves the essay as she entered it: trapped between instinctive obligation on the one hand, and cold calculation on the other. Moreover, she has no way to even process the tension between them, some way to make sense out of being able to hold on to both at the same time.
A 19th-century sage, Rabbi Meir Leibush Weiser (known to traditional Jews by his acronym, Malbim), succeeds where Sandra Tsing Loh comes up short. He comments on Deuteronomy's recapitulation of the Ten Commandments. Unlike the version in the Book of Exodus, the later version appends what reads like a guarantee for those who honor their parents: "it will be good for you." Malbim explains that this is not an announcement of Divine reward to those who are obedient children. Rather, it addresses the mindset of those who find no need to honor parents. They often downplay the argument used most often to explain why children should honor parents: that parents gave them the most precious gift imaginable, the gift of life itself. The Bible, in part, bolsters our almost instinctive reaction of wanting to acknowledge and reciprocate any good that is done to us. In the case of parents, we never fully discharge that obligation because it looms so large.
Some people do not find this reasoning persuasive. They do not see life itself as such a blessing. Without G-d, it is easy to say, "Life Happens," and leave it at that. Many come to the conclusion that in the mixture of pain and pleasure in this world, there is more of the former than the latter. Honoring parents for the preciousness of life itself is not at all intuitive to them. When the Bible tells us to honor parents, it is making a statement about the goodness of life. Because it is good, you need to honor all but the worst parents, because you can never repay the gift of life. The assumption that life is good changes a person's attitude to so much of it; life becomes good to someone who believes that it is. This is why "it will be good for you."
Believers who read Tsing Loh's piece, if they are honest with themselves, will find much that resonates. Unlike Tsing Loh, however, they will find significant satisfaction, even in the worst of their ordeals, that their investment in the well-being of their parents is a testimony to an upbeat view of life. In a roundabout sort of way, it may be the greatest gift parents can give to children, other than life itself.
Yitzchok Adlerstein is an Orthodox rabbi who directs interfaith affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and chairs Jewish Law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. He is hopelessly addicted to the serious study of Torah texts.