We find in the Torah portion of Ki Tavo that In the course of admonishing the nation of Israel prior to their entry into the Promised Land and prior to his passing, Moses declares (Devarim 27:16), “Cursed is one who degrades his father or mother.”
Regarding the aforementioned verse, the well known rosh yeshiva and maggid R. Yaakov Galinsky (1921 – 2014) related a couple of incidents that amplify upon the verse (VeHigadeta, Devarim pp. 345-346).
In one incident, a young man once came before the Torah giant R. Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz (1878 – 1953), known by the name of his magnum opus, Chazon Ish. The young man came from a home that was marginally religious and he had strengthened his religious convictions and joined a yeshiva. When he would come home from time to time, he told R. Karelitz, he would have a problem. His mother did not cover her hair and, since it is prohibited to express holy matters in the presence of the uncovered hair of a married woman, how, he asked, was he to sing the Sabbath zemirot (songs) or recite birkat ha’mazon (grace after meals)?
R. Karelitz responded to the young man’s query by pointing out the halakha is that it is sufficient to close one’s eyes (Mishna Brura, 75:5). “Just look into the siddur and that will suffice,” R. Karelitz concluded.
The young man, still unsatisfied, asked, “Perhaps it is better moving the entire body to the side, so she should not be [standing] opposite me.” R. Karelitz recoiled in shock and responded, “If the halakha permits it, you want to be stringent at the expense of your mother?! To protest, to turn your back to her?! And if she should rise and [walk around] to set the table, then you will turn around and around; you will sing ‘Eishet Chayil” and you will turn around opposite her like a spin top?! This is a stringency that will ignite fire in the house, and a great part of that fire in Gehinom [Hell]!” This was the response of R. Karelitz, the Chazon Ish, to one’s being stringent at the expense of one’s parent.
R. Galinsky reported another similar incident concerning the first Rebbe of Belz, known as “Sar Shalom,” R. Shalom Rokach (1781 – 1855).
Amongst Belz Chassidim, much weight is placed upon punctilious performance of customs, especially on Pesach (Passover), and most especially the widespread custom of gebrochts, also known as matza shruyah, which involves refraining from matza that has absorbed liquid.
One Seder night, R. Galinsky related, R. Rokach sat down at the table with his elderly mother at his side. When it came time to eat and the soup was served, the rebbe’s mother took a piece of matza and crumbled it into the soup, as the horrified Chassidim looked on. However, since the venerated Rebbe remained silent, so did his Chassidim.
The mother continued to eat and enjoy her soup, after which she took another piece of matza, crumbled it into the rebbe’s own soup bowl, remarking that “it is good.” The Rebbe then nodded, bent over and ate from the soup that his mother crumbled matza into – a 100% transgression of the custom of gebrochts.
Noticing the abject horror on the faces of his Chassidim, the Rebbe spoke up, explaining that this custom is not on the level of Torah law nor even of Rabbinic law. It is a custom – in fact a holy custom many years old – but, nevertheless, no more than a custom. Respect for one’s mother is a Torah law, and if one makes light of this matter, he transgresses the verse “Cursed is one who degrades his father or mother.” This was the response of R. Rokach, the first Belz Rebbe, to one’s being stringent at the expense of one’s parent.
Stringencies in devotion to G-d are indeed praiseworthy, but, in seeking greater devotion to G-d, one must not lose sight or perspective of all of Torah law in general. One must weigh one’s actions carefully not to engage in stringencies at the expense of other weighty and basic laws. Otherwise, one’s attempt to come closer to G-d may only cause greater distance from Him. All the more so, when engaging in stringencies at the expense of causing angst to one’s parents! As pointed out by R. Galinsky, based on the statements of R. Karelitz and R. Rokach, bringing sorrow to or belittling a parent, even for the purpose of exercising stringencies in behavior towards G-d is against G-d’s will. Exercising stringencies at the expense of upsetting one’s parents is to be cursed.
Too often one grows up with a feeling of wanting to increase one’s devotion to G-d and coming closer to G-d. As a result, one often finds a child who takes on stringencies in behavior that his otherwise religiously devout parent did not adopt, and the child makes comments or acts in a manner that expresses his feeling that the parent is not devout enough for his taste. The parent then becomes insulted – effectively degraded. The child then, instead of gaining more blessing by becoming closer to G-d, accomplishes the very opposite: “Cursed is one who degrades his father or mother.”
In a similar vein, it is worth mentioning an incident that occurred a number of years ago during the life of the noted latter day Torah luminary R. Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky (1899 – 1985), known as the Steipler Gaon. At one point, over a relatively short period of time, a number of observant Jews in Bnei Brak who were known for their Torah erudition passed away at an early age. Many found this to be perplexing and upsetting. So they turned to R. Kanievsky for an explanation. He responded that in looking into the background of each of these scholars who passed away, there was one common denominator. Each of these scholars’ fathers was a survivor of concentration camps who did not have the opportunity to receive a proper Jewish education. However, after surviving the camps, each father began a new life in the Land of Israel and was determined that his son would receive the education that he should have. Each of these scholars, as a result, received an ample education that their fathers were denied. However, as the sons became more learned and recognized their own fathers’ lack of knowledge, they began to treat their fathers in a certain manner of degradation. This, the Steipler Gaon asserted, led to these scholars’ untimely passing.
We must be careful. Let us not get carried away, so to speak, with our stringencies or our apparent devotion to G-d. As the wise King Solomon said (Kohelet 7:16), “Do not be overly righteous or excessively wise; why be left desolate?” To abide by G-d’s Will, we must keep a proper perspective. To be blessed for our devotion and come closer to G-d, we must not lose sight of everything that G-d wants from us and expects from us. Otherwise, in our attempt to gain more blessing, we may, G-d forbid, find ourselves to be cursed instead. Let us not get carried away with certain aspects of the Torah while losing perspective of the Torah as a whole. To do so can only be counter-productive. In particular, we must be sensitive to how our actions, well-meaning as they may be, may affect our parents, for the Al-Mighty tells us, “Cursed is one who degrades his father or mother.”