by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – June 9, 2015
It is said about the latter day Torah luminary R. Yaakov Kamenetsky that he was very exacting in adhering to the customs of his father and teachers. A story is told that his son once inquired why he did not eat cheese on Friday, to which he responded, “Because my father did not.” When his son pressed on as to why his grandfather did not eat cheese, R. Kamenetsky replied, “Probably because his father did not.” Just the fact that his father had a given custom was enough for R. Kamenetsky to continue that custom – whether he understood the reason or not. He relied on his father’s understanding and intelligence and accepted that as good enough reason to follow in his footsteps, even though it could be argued that he outshined his father in his level of erudition (see Yonason Rosenblum, Reb Yaakov, pp. 358 – 359).
In the beginning of the Torah portion of Shelach, we find a very startling contrast to the aforementioned. We read (Bamidbar 13:1-2), “And G-d spoke to Moses, saying: Send forth for yourself men, and let them spy out the Land of Canaan that I give to the Children of Israel.” As regards this statement of G-d, Rashi cites our Sages’ explanation (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 34b). The words “for yourself” mean that G-d was leaving it up to the discretion of the Children of Israel. G-d Himself saw no necessity for it. G-d had already told Moses that the land was good (see Sh’mot 3:17). Yet despite this, the people requested that the land should be inspected before entering. If despite His Word, the people could not just rely on G-d and “follow His lead,” so to speak, G-d chose to just tell them, as it were, “Have it your way,” and suffer the consequences. Indeed, as we read further in the Torah portion, the people did falter and let their emotions overtake their logic, causing unpleasant consequences.
R. Kamenetsky understood that his father was intelligent enough that if he did something, then there must have been a good reason and, even if he did not know it, it was good enough for him to accept. All the more so, should our ancestors in the desert have come to such a conclusion when it came to something related to them by G-d Himself. Tragically, however, that was not the case. Our ancestors were tripped up by their emotions and egos in the desert and suffered the consequences. After seeing that the people He guided and led as if on the “wings of eagles” did not exercise enough discretion to trust in Him, G-d responded, “Have it your way.” Choosing then to follow their own thoughts and feelings rather than simply accepting the eminently thoughtful guidance of their Father in heaven brought eventually to their “undoing,” so to speak.
As it is expected of us to respect and honor our Father in Heaven, we also are instructed in the Torah, in the Ten Commandments (Sh’mot 20:12), “Honor you father and your mother, so that your days will be lengthened upon the land that the L-rd your G-d gives you.” Rashi on this verse stresses, “If you will honor [them] your days will be lengthened, but if not they will be shortened.” Respecting and honoring one’s parents is not a matter to be taken lightly. In fact, one’s life can depend on it.
Unfortunately, however, in our day and age, it has become more and more rampant for younger generations to take lightly their parents’ feelings and ignore their customs and practices, borne of time, logic and experience, in favor of their own short-lived feelings and thoughts. Like the foolish King Rechavam who ignored the advice of his father King Solomon’s seasoned advisors, there has been a tendency among recent generations to ignore the additional experience and understandings accumulated over the years by their elders, and, instead, choose to draw their own conclusions. Unlike R. Kamenetsky, many in today’s generation tend to ignore their parents’ advice or thoughts. Some start in their early teens; some wait until their mid to late teens; and some develop this attitude after they marry. And many of those who ignore their parents’ advice are children who have gained much as a result of their parents’ decisions on their behalf while they were being raised. Yet, at some point, children develop an attitude whereby they do not see their parents’ advice and practices as something based on reasoned thought processes resulting from a combination of intelligence and the experience that they have gathered or that they themselves learned from their parents. Instead of looking to avoid the pitfalls that their parents have learned through their experience or through the experience of their parents, the new generation chooses to “reinvent the wheel,” so to speak, in consultation with others of the same age and attitude. They choose to go down the same path previously encountered by their elders, arriving at the same fork in the road as that found by their parents, without consulting with those older than them who might prevent their falling into a pit in the wrong path. In many cases, they do choose to consult with an older person outside of the family who, unfortunately, is unaware of some of the important background relevant to the question or is misled concerning some of the background – background that could be better understood had the parent been given the courtesy of being consulted with. How sad! It has been said, “Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.” Similarly, if one fails to learn the lessons of the history of his or her parents, he or she is doomed to repeat them.
One should keep in mind that quietly sitting and listening to one’s parents but rolling one’s eyes as they speak does not provide their parents their due respect or honor. Nor does grunting in response to a parent’s question or statement serve to respect them. All the worse are snide or biting comments directed at parents. Conspicuously avoiding topics that used to be freely discussed with one’s parents can also be unnerving and troublesome to parents who until then experienced open communication with their children. Any such behavior would not be appreciated if directed at these children by others. Yet, children often see no issue in their directing these types of actions at their own parents, who deserve even more respect than they. And, woe to parents who are caught once making even the smallest mistake; some children never let them forget it, as if parents are not allowed any human faults at all!
What do parents, then, do when their advice or thoughts or customs are ignored or belittled? As G-d reacted to His people, the parent, exasperated and frustrated, says, “Have it your way,” as they sadly watch their children make mistakes that could have been avoided had their children respected their opinion and experience by turning to them for advice.
When G-d saw that the Children of Israel ignored His eminent advice, He told them, “Have it your way,” watching as they chose the wrong path, something that could have been avoided had they properly recognized the value of the Al-Mighty’s Word. The Children of Israel, unfortunately, suffered the consequences and their relationship with their Father in Heaven was damaged. When parents see that their children ignore their opinion, they too have no alternative but to say, “Have it your way,” and, unfortunately, what could have been a warm, helpful and productive long-lasting relationship can wither and suffer irreparable damage.
Ignoring G-d is obviously infinitely more severe, but, in each case, pitfalls can be avoided if one has the proper approach. Let us not pamper our egos or emotions at the expense of our intellects and common sense. Let us learn our lesson from the Torah and those who uphold it such as R. Kamenetsky and other Torah greats like him over the generations who showed great respect for their parents’ beings, actions and thoughts, even when they eventually outshined them. Let us not seek to have it “our way.” Let us only seek the “right way.” Let us seek proper counsel and let us truly respect that counsel. Let all of us learn to show the requisite sensitivity and respect, as well as gratitude and appreciation, to our parents and all the more so to G-d, and may we all merit, thereby, that “your days will be lengthened” , enjoying fulfilling and thriving lives – without pitfalls that could be avoided.