Drash: Mishpatim Exodus 21:1 – 24:18 / January 24, 2014
By: Ilene Cohen
This week’s parashat is Mishpatim from the Book of Exodus in which Moses tells th Israelites the rules and laws they must follow after having received the ten commandments in last week’s parashat. The subject of my drash is to examine the commandment to honor your father and mother. We know that this commandment is central to Judaism because it is mentioned five different times in the Torah. First it appears in Exodus 20:12 as “Honor your father and your mother so that your days may be lengthened upon the land the Lord your God has given you.” Then it appears in this week’s parashat in Exodus 21:15 as “he who strikes his mother or father shall be put to death.” Then two verses later, it says “He who insults his father and mother shall be put to death.” That seems a bit harsh, doesn’t it? But it does get better. In Leviticus 19:3, it says “You shall each revere his father and mother and keep My Sabbaths; I the Lord am your God.” Finally it comes up again in Deuteronomy 5:16 as “Honor your father and mother, as the Lord your God has commanded that you may long endure, and that you may fare well in the land that the Lord your God is assigning you.”
Why is this commandment so important? One possible answer is that a child’s relationship with his or her parent is a building block and a model of an adult’s relationship to God, provided there are loving parents to honor.
But what happens if you had parents that verbally and sexually abused you? What if your parents failed to honor you? This is precisely the problem I must struggle with.
When I was 14, my stepfather sexually abused me. When I tried to tell my Mother about it, she told me that I was to blame because she said, I was tempting him. The result of her refusal to acknowledge the truth was that I shut down my sexuality and followed her instructions to make sure my body was completely covered up at all times. Early last year, I revealed my story to Rabbi Raquel Adler. She listened sympathetically and loaned me a book that has changed my life. It the rabbinic thesis Rabbi Benay Lappe wrote entitled, “Does a Child Who Has Been Sexually Abused by a Parent Have the Obligation to Say Kaddish for that Parent?”
Here are some of the things I learned from this book and also from Rabbi Adler: First, while the Torah commands us to love God, nowhere does it say that we should love our parents. Rabbi Shimon bar Yokhai said, “The most difficult of all the mitzvoth is the one to honor your father and mother.”
So what does it mean to revere and to honor? Our Rabbis taught us that to revere means that the son must not stand or sit in his father’s place, nor contradict his words especially in public and to not strike him. Honor means that a son must give his father food and drink, clothe and cover him, and care for him in old age and say Kaddish after his death. The Talmud is full of examples of the enormous lengths to which various sages went through to honor their parents with almost superhuman compassion and sensitivity.
Rabbi David Novak asks the question, “can parents’ behavior reach such an immoral level that the commandments to honor and revere no longer apply?” To answer this, let’s look at what some of the Talmudic Rabbis had to say. On the far right, you have Maimonides literally saying you must honor your parents regardless of the sins they committed. Murder, theft, sexual acts with or without repentance can be overlooked when it comes to a child’s obligation to honor his parents.
At the other end of the Talmudic spectrum is Rabbi Elizer of Metz who holds that “If the father violates the Torah, even if only one commandment and does not repent, the son is not obligated to honor or revere his parent.”
Rabbi Lappe goes into great detail on just how serious the crime of sexual abuse and incest is. These crimes can result in long term and possibly lifelong wounds and scars that are left on the child. Among the list of aftereffects are episodes of depression, anxiety, self hatred, boundary issues, intimacy problems, and addictions to drugs, alcohol, or food as a way to help to drown out the childhood memories. In short, sexual abuse violates the child at the deepest possible level—by bruising the child’s very identity. In the words of Rabbi Elliot Dorf, “The abuse is indeed a defilement: what was whole is now desecrated and broken.”
The Kaddish, sometimes thought of as a prayer for the dead, is actually about praising God and does not mention death at all. Thus saying Kaddish for a parent who was hurtful can actually be a source of healing. Rabbi Lappe concludes that the mourner’s decision to say or not to say Kaddish will depend on the survivor’s stage in the healing process. The Kaddish can be seen as a way of reaffirming what relations between a parent and child should be. The important thing is to do it for yourself and your values and not focus on parental obligations. That way the Kaddish can be seen as an opportunity to regain control and start the healing process.
Rabbi Lappe also concludes that there is too much emphasis in Halakah (Jewish law) on the perpetrator and not on the victim. She would like to see more liturgy that pays attention to the needs of the survivor. To that end, I have come across two alternative contemporary prayers that can be said in place of or in addition to the Kaddish. I made copies of these prayers and have placed them in the back of the sanctuary. As you exit, you are welcome to take and read them at your leisure.
I wish to end this D’var Torah with a personal prayer that I wrote for healing from sexual abuse:
“Adonai, I can no longer bear this pain alone. It is time to open my heart and share myself with people who are nurturing and supportive, people with whom I can have a reciprocal relationship. Give me the courage to prevent the pain of the past from destroying my present and my future life. Adonai, may I find comfort in the fact that I am not to blame for what happened and that I am not the only person who has been abused in this way. Guide me, Adonai, to find the faith and healing I need to regain my self confidence and to learn that it is okay to trust and be close to others. Adonai, I know that with your lovingkindness, I will allow myself to experience love and to lead a peaceful and meaningful life embraced by your Torah. Amen.