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Carry That Weight: The Fifth Commandment for the Parentless Child

In addition to the meditations on middot that were posted on YouTube during the Omer this year (check them out HERE if you haven’t already), I spent the days leading up to Shavuot thinking a lot of about the Ten Commandments. Whenever I hear or read or speak those words, my first two thoughts are always straight from Hollywood: Charlton Heston in the Cecil B. Demille classic of the same name, very quickly supplanted by Mel Brooks in the equally classic History of the World (pt. 1). This year, when I thought about the scene, in which Brooks’ Moses starts out with fifteen commandments, one of which falls victim to gravity, I considered what might have been on that extra tablet. When I posed this thought experiment to a friend (who produced such gems as Thou Shalt Power Down Thy Mobile Devices Completely When Attending Live Performances) she asked me in turn if there were any commandments I would omit if I could. I thought for a moment and replied that I struggled with the both the tenth and fifth commandments. I went on to explain that the former troubled me because it prohibited not just actions but thoughts, which struck me as a slippery slope. And I do not think I am alone in wrestling with a requirement to honor my mother and father. People are complicated, and since parents are people, they are not immune. Even the best parents are contractually obligated to disappoint, frustrate, and misunderstand us. And what about those parents who are less than best? We need not be one of the 14% of children in this country to experience some form of abuse or neglect to hold a degree of ambivalence to our parents[1]?

My friend, though sympathetic to my reasoning on both fronts, sought to bring me some valuable perspective as the working mom of my favorite four-year-old: It doesn’t say love, or even like. You do, however, have to respect how hard being a parent is, and how much our parents sacrifice for us. I could not deny the truth of her words, and her insights did help make the fifth commandment less troubling for me. And yet, I couldn’t help but think about the one in nine girls and one in 53 boys under the age of 18 who experience sexual abuse or assault at the hands of an adult, 34% of whom are abused by a family member[2]. These children, and not their parents, are the ones who sacrifice.

As I often do when I am wrestling with big questions, I pushed this conversation to the middle of my brain – not so far back as to be forgotten about, but not so far forward that it dominated my thoughts – and recorded my last video for the Middah video series I so shamelessly plugged earlier. Serendipitously, it was the video for Kavod or Honor. As I was reading my notes over, the penny dropped, so to speak. Kavod shares a root with the Hebrew word kaved, meaning “heavy”, both literally and metaphorically. The commandment, כַּבֵּ֥ד אֶת־אָבִ֖יךָ וְאֶת־אִמֶּ֑ךָ (respect your mother and father), doesn’t just mean to respect your parents because what they do or don’t do. It enjoins us to recognize that our relationships with our parents are the most consequential in our lives, setting the tone for each and every other one we will ever have. And we must be respectful of that fact, either by doing our utmost to nurture those relationships if they are healthy, or to sever them and then assiduously attend to the resulting wound. In either case, compassion, generosity, and kindness are essential. Try to give one another the benefit of the doubt, to remember that parents are people, too. When all else fails, and you find yourself too depleted to feel anything other than your own hurt, try to remember that one way we can observe the Fifth Commandment is to extend to ourselves the love and caregiving and acceptance we wish we could receive from our fathers and mothers.

My thoughts returned to the question of familial bonds on Shavuot and in the days following. As is so often the case, with regards to the Fifth Commandment, biology is not destiny and families come in many shapes and sizes. I may not share any genealogical ties with my chosen family, but that does not undermine our commitment to and love for each other. I am fortunate enough to have been blessed with a number of surrogate fathers and mothers in my life, and I strive to honor them all by living according to the values they instilled in me. In that spirit, here in my invitation for you for the weeks ahead: expand your definition of “parent” to include anyone who has invested in your growth by providing you mentorship or support, and then make a point to connect with them regularly. Honor their contributions to your lives not just by saying “thank you” but by also living by their example. And if you can, pay their efforts forward by identifying people in your life who could benefit from your mentorship, and reach out to them, too.

Stay home. Stay safe. Be well.

Cassandra Tenonbaum

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