Mother’s Day 2014

I have been saving this sermon for today since Pesach. You will hopefully see how it fits both Passover and now. It is based on the writings of a colleague about a two word English language expression that is becoming extinct.

Our story starts in a courtroom in New Jersey on March 4 of this year (2 months ago); it immediately became a topic of discussion on the Internet when Rachel Canning, of Lincoln Park, New Jersey, filed a lawsuit against her parents.  As one writer described the story:

Rachel Canning is an 18-year-old who sued her parents. She brought a lawsuit to force her parents to pay for her private school education and her personal expenses.  It seems that while living at home her parents set rules she was expected to follow. She had to abide by a curfew, commit to doing assigned chores performed also by her siblings, and be respectful to her elders. She chose instead to leave home and live with the family of a friend – a home in which she was free to get drunk and to party as she pleased. It seems she valued independence above all. But unfortunately she wasn’t independent enough to be able to support herself – and so she demanded that the parents who had previously bought her a car, paid for her private school tuition, and set aside money for her college education – be legally required to continue to take care of her in the style to which she had become accustomed.  The contract that she assumed guided their relationship seems to have been:  “You owe me everything – I owe you nothing” – because after all that’s the way she and others in her generation define the job of parent.  In a Morristown court, after Rachel filed for an emergency order to get $600 a week from her parents, Judge Peter Bogaard blasted the young woman, referring to an obscene voicemail she left for her mother.   “Have you ever seen a young adult show such gross disrespect to a parent in a voicemail?” he asked. “The child thumbs her nose at her parents, leaves the house and turns around asking, ‘Now you have to pay me money every week.’ ”

When I first read the story I didn’t pay that much attention to it.  I thought of it as a “man bites dog” kind of thing … a story that caught our attention because it is so out of kilter, so out of the ordinary.  But then came this on March 13, not even ten days later, in the Sunday New York Times, in its Social Q’s – a sophisticated version of Dear Abby – where we see the following query from a young mom:

“When my husband and I go out of town for long weekends, my mother takes care of our three sons (ages 8, 5 and 3). We appreciate this immensely: it’s free, we trust her, the boys adore her and she seems to enjoy it. The problem is, she leaves our house a mess. It takes me a full day to clean up the toys, half-washed clothing and dirty dishes. Plus, she lets the boys eat ice cream in my car, which creates a sticky mess. Complicating matters, she likes lots of praise and is sensitive to criticism. Next time, the young mom asks, is it OK if I suggest that the children stay at her place and offer to pay for maid service after they leave?   [signed]  Eliza, Houston”

Put these two stories together and you see a pattern … a pattern that reminds us that there are two words – just two little words – that you hardly hear anymore.  It’s as if they disappeared from our language!  Sometimes they do still slip out occasionally but when they do, it seems to be only a mechanical act.  People rarely use them and mean them anymore because the concept they represent is almost dead in modern society.  The two words are: THANK YOU.

Now let us double back to Passover; remember that I said I got struck by this idea then and have been saving it up for this weekend. There is a lot about “thank you” in the Passover story – it’s like a miniature Thanksgiving, though if I were to ask you: “what are the important concepts we are to learn from the festival of Pesach?” you might respond, “The importance of “freedom” and “liberty,” “the equality of mankind,” “human rights,” “social justice,” “compassion.”  And yes, the holiday message has a bit of all that and more.  But listen to these words from the Rav, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik: “The essence of the Seder, and hence that of telling the story of the exodus from Egypt, is the expression of gratitude to the Almighty on the great liberation and miracles that God brought for us in Egypt.”  And the Rambam states in his Book of Commandments, “We are commanded to tell the story at the beginning of the 15th of Nisan and we are to thank God for all the goodness He has bestowed upon us.”  On the Seder night, at the climax of Maggid, we say: ‘Therefore we are obligated to thank and praise … exalt and revere God who performed all those miracles and for us.”

And in other ways too, our sages read the story of our Egyptian experience as containing lessons in thanksgiving:

  •  God appears to Moshe in the burning bush … appoints him as a leader of the Jewish people and tells him to return to Egypt.  Does Moshe comply?  Not right away!   First, he goes back to Yitro – his father-in-law.  The Midrash posits that Moshe said to God, “Yitro took me in when nobody else would.  I can’t just walk out on him … I first have to go and ask his permission and say thank you for all he has done.”
  • Still later Moshe helps bring the plagues on Egypt, but not the first two.  Those are brought by his brother, Aaron.  Why?  Because the first two, blood and frogs, came from water … the very same water that had once saved Moshe’s life.  It would have been the height of ingratitude for him to bring plagues from the very same water that had helped save his life.  Even the water deserves a debt of gratitude.  Moshe Rabbeinu – Moshe our teacher.  Indeed, his name, Moshe, given to him by Pharaoh’s daughter, which is not a Hebrew name but is used throughout his life in gratitude to her, teaches us to say THANK YOU.

Now, surely among the first words we teach our children are those words THANK YOU.  But how quickly they forget them, for ours is a society that no longer speaks much of children’s responsibilities.  Today we speak of children’s rights!  Everything is expected, with no need for gratitude and appreciation.

Listen to this from a high school graduation talk, first the part addressed to the parents.    “Think about a graduation gift for a minute.  Your child is graduating high school and what does he or she say?  “What are you going to give me?”  And from what I see and hear, you have given them a lot already,  through all their growing up years, food and clothes and shelter and arranging carpools and helping with homework and vacations  – and at the end of high school a used car is already a major disappointment!  And you are about to spend  $20-60,000 a year to send them to college.  In return for which, your kid asks, “What are you going to give me when I graduate?”

The speaker then went on to say, now to the kids: “So, kids, when you graduate, if your parents still want to give you a gift, that’s nice!  But remember, they’re entitled to something back in return.  It doesn’t have to be very expensive.  Just show them how wise your education has made you.  Just do what common etiquette asks us to do whenever we receive a gift.  Write them a “thank you” note.  Let them know that you don’t take all that they have done for you for granted.  And if you’re not very eloquent, and if you don’t know what to write, let me help you.  You don’t have to write much.  You can jot down on a card three letters: I O U.”

But you know what?  I can’t say that anymore, it is so not PC!  In America today it is considered neurotic or at least unhealthy to teach children that they owe us for their orthodontia, their college tuition, their very lives.  The model of a sacrificial parent waiting for a return on their investment has become a satire.  Raising children is supposed to be a free act of love.  Now our kids tell us: “Don’t lay any guilt trips on me!”  When children say of their parents, “I didn’t ask to be born … I don’t owe them anything!” … they are right, insofar as legal, contractual obligations go.  But, by the same token, no contract was in force when the child was born.  Legally, parents don’t owe their children all that much, and some give their children very little.  But most parents give so much more, acting out of love and moral – not legal – obligation.  Is there no room then for a little gratitude, a little appreciation, a little THANK YOU?

In some ways, this lack of appreciation is partly nothing new.  Parents have always understood this as being part of the reality of being a parent, but at least they were sustained by the knowledge their children would grow up and become parents themselves and then they would understand … they, themselves having become parents, would begin to appreciate the sacrifices and struggles their parents had made for them, and have a greater sense of gratitude.    But I am not sure that works anymore either.  Listen to this little piece entitled: “A Grandparent’s Answering Machine:”

Good morning . . .  At present we are not at home but, please leave your message after you hear the beep. Beeeeeppp …

  1. If you are one of our children, dial 1 and then select the option from 1 to 5 in order of “arrival” so we know who it is.
  2. If you need us to stay with the children, press 2.
  3. If you want to borrow the car, press 3.
  4. If you want us to wash your clothes and do the ironing, press 4.
  5. If you want the grandchildren to sleep here tonight, press 5.
  6. If you want us to pick up the kids at school, press 6.
  7. If you want us to prepare a meal for Sunday or to have it delivered to your home, press 7.
  8. If you want to come to eat here, press 8.
  9. If you need money, dial 9.

If you are going to invite us to dinner, or taking us to the theater, start talking … we are listening!

Do you remember Eliza from Houston … the woman who wrote to the New York Times social advisor complaining that when her mother-in-law takes care of the children she doesn’t keep the place clean?  Thank God, the New York Times social advisor didn’t worry about political correctness when she wrote: “Let me suggest you count your blessings and keep your mouth shut.  Just pray that your mother-in-law doesn’t come to her senses.”

It is important for us to think about this with Mother’s Day tomorrow, and Father’s Day not far down the road. After all is said and done, as we pause to honor or remember our parents, we can either be saying THANK YOU or sue you!  The idea of suing isn’t so irrational. There is much our parents did for which we could have taken them to court!  A colleague wrote that when he was growing up he and his brother were having their daily wrestling match and his mother, who was sweeping the kitchen, called out to them to stop.  Which of course, they didn’t do.  And after a while she had had it!  And she came running into the room, broom in hand, and she proceeded to hit my colleague with the broom.  And lo and behold, a sliver from the broom broke off into his elbow.  And she had to take him to the hospital.  He still remembers her words on the way to the emergency room.  In her wise and empathetic manner she said to him: “You’ll tell them you fell on the broom.”  And, he recounts that, for an ice cream cone, that’s just what he did!

His parents, like yours and mine, were not perfect.  Some hit us with a broom or a strap and, according to child psychologists today, they did lots of other things that were “wrong.”  But our parents did a lot of things that were right!  And that is why we are what we are today.  They loved us, they cared about us, they tucked us into bed at night and they did a lot of other good things.  I think we said THANK YOU to them … I think we said IOU to them … but as time passes, I’m not really sure.

That is the beauty of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.  They give us the opportunity to tell our parents how much we love them, or how much we miss them, how much we appreciate them, and how much we learned from them, how much they are a blessing to us, how all our “thank you’s” can never be enough.       Amen