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On honouring parents

Our sages hasten to remind us that all of the 613 Mitzvot found in the Torah are equally important. This helps us not to neglect ones that we might consider minor, such as shooing away the mother bird from her children when taking away her eggs, serving to elevate them alongside those we might think are the most important, such as the eponymous “big ten” of ten commandment fame.

Elsewhere in the Talmud the rabbis play a game of reducing the 613 to find the one – the most essential or important commandment that is the meta-mitzvah for us to follow and underpins all the others. And in the words of Hillel, this is the Golden Rule: “do unto others as you would like them to do to you” – found across so many religions either in this positive form or in its negative counterpart (don’t treat other people in ways you would not like to be treated). And this formula – treating others as you’d like them to treat you - works very well as a rule of thumb for almost everyone, except perhaps as a principle for sado-masochists!

Yet becoming a parent this year has renewed my attention on another key commandment – kibud av va’em – one of the big ten – namely, respecting your father and mother. It is of course one that touches all of us, but especially our Thursday minyan, as several of our regulars are currently in their year of mourning for one of their parents who has passed away. This act of coming together to say kaddish is an important way of giving honour to those who gave us life, and the regular formation of a minyan acts as the heartbeat of a Jewish community.

We did not need Freud to understand that honouring one’s parents is not always easy, and that the intimacy of familial love can be complicated and viscerally woven into our very identity. We surely all have, at some point, been angry with our parents for things they have or have not done for us, perhaps for how they have treated each other, or for countless things already long-forgotten or dimmed into the recesses of our memories. One of my favourite poems “odi et amo” comes from the Roman author Catullus, and is just two lines long:

Odi et amo – I love and I hate. Why do I do this, perhaps you ask?

I don’t know, but I feel it happening and it’s torture.

Several Talmudic and Midrashic stories touch upon this topic. There are some entertaining yet poignant tales about alcoholic fathers and would-be incestuous mothers. What is a son (or daughter) to do? Perhaps to become an ex-pat. Spoken part in jest, actually that answer is given in one instance, where moving to another country is deemed the only way possible for a child to maintain the honour and dignity of their dysfunctional parent. Dealing with difficult parents seems to be a very real theme two thousand years ago, in a way that some of us can understand only too well today.

So it is against this backdrop that I offer you this morning the story of Dama ben Netina, a non-Jew from Ashkelon, who the Talmud offers us as the paragon of filial piety (not to be confused with the Paragon on Orchard). Dama is such a dutiful son, that we wonder really what the rabbis make of him. Listen to this story, which can be found – in different variants - in both the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds:

“The Sages asked Rabbi Eliezer: To what extent must one exert himself to fulfil the mitzvah of honouring one’s father and mother? Rabbi Eliezer said to them: Go and see what a certain gentile did for his father in Ashkelon, and his name is Dama ben Netina. Once, the Sages sought to purchase precious stones from him for the ephod of the High Priest for six hundred thousand gold dinars’ profit - and Rav Kahana teaches that it was eight hundred thousand dinars’ profit. But the keys to the chest holding the jewels were placed under his father’s head, and he would not disturb him.”

In a subsequent year, a red heifer was born in Dama’s herd and the Sages of Israel approached him, seeking to purchase the heifer. Dama said to them: I know concerning you that if I were to ask from you all the money in the world, you would give it to me. Now I am requesting from you only that amount of money which I lost by refraining from waking my father.” (bAvodah Zarah 23b, Sefaria translation)

Well, if I were ever to go into business with Noam, I’m not sure I’d be too happy if he let me sleep on such a sale, and miss out on such a profit. And yet – it seems to be this act of love and honour that eventually leads to the birth of a red cow – that rarest and most valuable of creatures, at least to those Jews who want to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. As Dama tells the sages, he knows that its value is priceless to them. And this week’s Torah portion reminds us why – a perfectly red cow and its ashes hold the key to the mix of the waters of lustration that can purify the unclean.

Dama was something special: it was also told how his mother once publicly humiliated him by hitting him with her shoe, when he was presiding over the Ashkelon city council. Out of respect for his mother, he suffered silently and even bent down to pick up the shoe which she had flung at him. It was also said that he would never sit upon any stone that his father had sat upon, treating it as an object to be revered even once his father had passed away.

It is telling how this stellar exempla of a good son, Dama, was a non-Jew. His superhuman patience may be beyond the average Yiddishe kopf. And yet, his actions may be extreme but they are something for us to aim for. Let us continue to work to honour our parents – both those who are still with us, and those who have left us – and let us teach our children how we would like them to behave with us too. Perhaps the lesson from Dama is that even short-term large profits can be eschewed for even more momentous rewards in the future – Jewish modelling of the virtues of middle-class “delayed gratification” if ever I saw it!

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