This week, at the foot of Sinai, Moses’ father in law Yitro catches up with the Israelites, bringing Moses’ sons and wife with him. Yitro explains to a rather clueless Moses the concepts of delegation and bureaucracy, and then the people get ready for the receiving of Torah at Sinai, hear the Ten Commandments, then promptly freak out. They delegate dealing with God to Moses, who then gets four more commandments: a repeat of the prohibition of no idols, how to build a earth altar, how to build a stone altar, and using ramps on altars so one’s privates don’t show when ascending the altar.
Given today’s date one verse in Torah stands out for me today.
Honor Your father and your Mother in order that you lengthen your days on the the earth that the lord has set you.
It is seductive to look at only the first half of that verse, Honor your father and mother. But what of the second, that a consequence of doing so is to lengthen your days?
If this commandment applies to in-laws as well, we see one possible thread in this Torah reading. At the beginning of this portion, Yitro, Moses’ father in law, instructs Moses to delegate, indeed to build a big judicial hierarchy. Yitro sees Moses is pretty much killing himself doing everything for everyone. We don’t hear that Moses actually carried out Yitro’s advice in Torah. There’s indeed evidence in B’midbar that Moses didn’t heed his father in law, and Yitro leaves in a huff, despite Moses’ pleas for him to stay. Not long after Yitro leaves, Moses begs God to kill him because he can’t handle all the complaining. God’s answer is pretty much the same as Yitro’s–delegate.
Parents are the guidance to make the right choices in life, the people who should take the lead while children follow them down the paths that will lead to a good and long life.
I am thinking of my mom today. Two years ago today, a gray morning, I stood with my sister and with Sunny holding my mom’s hands as she took her last breath and her heart beat for the last time. January had been a nightmare month. First there was the extreme pain she was admitted to the emergency room with, the surgery to correct a critical condition to her spinal chord, the recovery from that only to lapse in what would one of two comas, the last she would not wake up from.
My mom loved to travel. Together we went to Alaska and Hawai and Israel. She and I went on once-in-a-lifetime adventures on Safari in South Africa. We dined with a wild elephant along the Zambezi River just before it dumps into Victoria Falls. we saw penguins, iguanas and of course Lonesome George in the Galapagos Islands. When we went to Petra she took a fall. She insisted it was nothing but I did convince her to take a donkey halfway back to the bus. SHe limped the last mile back to the bus, insisting it was nothing. In reality she was in intense pain and wouldn’t tell anyone until she was home and her own doctor’s care back in the States three days later. She never wanted to be the center of attention, and never ever wanted to ruin another’s experience.
It started snowing not long after she died. By the time we met with My mom’s Rabbi for the funeral arrangements, it was snowing very heavily. It didn’t stop for a day and a half, the largest Snowstorm we have had in quite a while. To this day I believe that freak snowstorm which kept all the relatives from flying in for the funeral is her doing.
My inheritance from my mom was not financial but a part of my soul: My mom had a streak of compassion and caring the runs deep. A huge part of her life was is to make sure those around her are cared for and were happy, even to her own detriment no matter how painful. She just did, and never said anything about it. She never wanted a big deal made over anything she did. As a parent, she like Yitro only wanted the best for her children. I am Definitely my mother’s son in that respect. Though I fall short in my efforts compared to her, I take care of those around me, also to my own detriment at times.
There is another mom I’m thinking of tonight as well. She was just a schoolteacher in the Bronx, yet when her son was beaten merely for being gay, she took action. On June 25th 1972, Jeanne Manford marched in what would evolve into the New York Gay Pride parade with her son. The enthusiastic reaction from many was startling; many young people wanted her to talk to their parents. Within a year, She and her husband Jules held a meeting of parents of GLBT children, those meetings would eventually become PFLAG. Jeanne Manford’s death lash month is another death of a parent who did their best to help their children live a long full life.
Memorializing Jeanne Manford sadly brings up her tragic opposite: Those who do not accept their children’s identity as easily and fervently as she did. We are to honor our father and mother, but is the converse true? What if our father and mother do not honor us?
The question in the GLBT community is far from academic, it is far more tragic.
LGBT youth comprise approximately 40% of the clientele served by homeless agencies agencies represented in the sample of the LGBT Homeless Youth Provider Survey,
46% Ran away because of family rejection of sexual orientation or gender identity
43% were forced out by parents because of sexual orientation or gender identity
“To lengthen your days” is a two way contract between parent and child. The child honors the parent, yet the parents need to show the leadership, compassion and wisdom to lead the child to the child’s full life, the one set by God and DNA, not by the parent’s actions. The verse is clear: God set us on this Earth the way we are. The mitzvah is the parents have to deal with what God gave us. Those parents who in their own self-asorbtion, reject their children or throw their children from their home for a gender identity or sexual identity set by God is a failure of the parent to do this. In suicides and homelessness, the parent shortens the full life of their child to nothing. Their GLBT children were denied parents Like Jeanne and Jules Mamford and other PFLAG parents. They were denied parents like my dad and my mom.
Although I am straight, I have had a parallel experience, which informs my views on how hard it is to say who you really are. About ten years ago, I came to the conclusion I wasn’t put on this earth to have children. My girlfriend at the time, who had forced the issue, simply got up and left without saying anything more — I never saw her again. I found when I told friends and my congregation I got a lot of negative reactions, shunning and people trying convincing me I was wrong, and I was a traitor to the Jews, I was sinning against the pseudo-mitzvah of be fruitful and multiply. At it’s worst, I even received hate mail from a board member. I was eventually run out of that community, one that was supposedly strongly liberal and accepting of everyone. In contrast, my parents accepted who I was without a problem, ineed my mom said something I will always remember.
My mom loved to write comments about my D’var Torah Blog Shlomo’s Drash. She once commented to me after I wrote about my decision publicly “Others enjoy making the kids and grandkids. some are called to teach, that’s their choice. You are one who needs to teach. I’m proud of you for that.” She had something there. We read in Talmud:
If [a man’s] own lost article and his father’s lost article [need attention], his own takes precedence. [if] His own and his teacher’s [then] his own takes precedence; [if] his father’ s and his teacher’s [then] his teacher’s takes precedence, because his father brought him into this world, whereas his teacher. ‘who instructed him in wisdom, brings him to the future world. [Baba Metzia 33a,]
So it is also with the study of the law; if the son has been worthy [to sit] before the teacher, the teacher comes before the father in all places, because both a man and his father are bound to honor the teacher. [K’rithot 28a,]
R. Samuel b. Nahmani said in R. Jonathan’s name: He who teaches his neighbor’s child the Torah, Scripture ascribes it to him as if he had begotten him. [Sanh. 19b]
Who are the teachers that can become the surrogate parents for those who own mother and father have rejected them? I have not far to look, but to those who understand both Torah and the GLBTQ experience sitting in front of me today. In teaching Torah here on Shabbat we may be the only teachers for some whose families have rejected them. We of the is congregation may be the only ones that some have in times of sadness and support –and love.
The Kotsker Rebbe quipped once, when asked if he would resurrect the dead, he replied he would rather resurrect the living. Let us continue the tradition of the this congregation to help raise up the living.
It’s what my mom would have wanted.