Commentary on Parashat Yitro

Bettijane Eisenpreis

By Bettijane Eisenpreis

Honor your father and your mother, that you may long endure on the land that the Lord your God is assigning to you.

Exodus 20: 12

The Ten Commandments are often cited as the bedrock of our faith. For both Jews and Christians, they are said to lay down the rules by which we strive to live. Throughout the ages, scholars have expounded on them and religious leaders have striven to convince their followers to adhere to them. Many of us learned them in Sunday School and can recite them from memory.

Following the Ten Words, as they have been called, should be easy. But is it?

Let’s look at the Fifth Commandment: “Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother.” Our tradition tells us that this commandment is placed between the commandments dealing with worshipping God and those dealing with our fellow persons because parents are the bridge between the divine and the human. As a woman, I can understand that. When you first hold your baby in your arms, it feels as if you have participated in the act of Creation. It’s a huge responsibility, but it’s also a great joy. Honoring those people who created you, nurtured you, and struggled with you along the way shouldn’t really be so hard, but sometimes it is harder than we care to admit.

When my father was 80 years old, we went to Wilkes-Barre, PA, our home town, to visit his brother, who was in a nursing home. The home was clean and seemed well run, but Uncle Simon was obviously unhappy there, although his daughter came in on her way home from work most days to check on him and called when she couldn’t stop by. After our visit, my father said to me, “Promise me you’ll never put me in one of those homes.”

Some background is necessary here. It was that same father who used to say when I was young, “Never promise a child anything – from an ice cream cone to a spanking – if you are not prepared to give it to him or her.” And here he was, asking me to promise him something major.

I hesitated, but Pop was so upset that, against my better judgement, I promised. Several years later, when he was in need of constant care, I moved him into an apartment next to mine and hired round-the-clock nurses and aides to care for him. A cousin who came to visit said, “What are you doing? You’re operating a private nursing home for one patient. It’s insane!”

My cousin was right. It was a terrible drain on me. And Pop still wasn’t happy, because he was old and sick and he hated being dependent. He probably wouldn’t have been much more unhappy in a good nursing home, but I had promised. Was I honoring my father or simply being a martyr? I don’t know. I do know that I wouldn’t make my son make a similar promise, much as I dread such facilities.

Looking back, I see that I had forgotten something. At my Confirmation, as I stood before the Ark, the rabbi made me promise that I would not marry a non-Jew. I was fifteen years old and not about to marry anybody, but I had a crush on a Catholic boy in the class above me in high school. I did not feel I could tell the rabbi “No,” so I promised. My father saw at once that I was upset and he made me tell him my problem. “A promise made under duress is not binding,” he said. I knew he would be unhappy if I married out of the faith, and ultimately I didn’t. But it was a huge relief to know that I didn’t have to keep that promise.

I could have said, when the time came, “Look, Pop, I know I promised. You were upset about your brother and I wanted to make you feel better. But this setup just isn’t working. Let’s look for a facility where they will take good care of you. I will check on you very often and I’ll never stop loving you.” Wouldn’t I have been honoring him according to the Commandment?

“Honor thy father and thy mother…” is just one commandment. There are ten, and keeping them isn’t easy. But studying them is fascinating.