The Ten Commandments, also called the Decalogue, are listed in two places in the Bible, Exodus chapter 20 and Deuteronomy chapter 5. I want to say a few words about what Judaism counts as the fifth commandment: “Honor your father and your mother.”
This simple statement engenders some questions. Consider: how does one honor a parent or, for that matter, anyone; how long are we to keep the commandment concerning our parents? For example, does the obligation continue after their deaths; are there circumstances in which the requirement can be, indeed, should be, overridden; what is meant by parents? Does it include adoptive parents, step-parents, guardians, teachers, perhaps? Well, these questions are dealt with in detail by many sources far more qualified to answer them than I.
Like many words, “honor” may be better understood by considering an instance of it in action, a kind of Socratic method of getting at a word’s essence. A beautiful example concerning honoring a parent is recorded in the Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 31a.
“R. Judah said in the name of Samuel: When R. Eliezer was asked, ‘How far should honoring one’s father and mother extend?’ he replied. ‘Go and see what a certain heathen named Dama ben Netinah did for his father in Ashkelon. Once, the sages sought some precious stones from him for the ephod at a profit to him of sixty myriads [of gold denars]. But the key to where the stones were kept was under his [sleeping] father’s pillow, and he would not disturb him.” (The Book of Legends, Bialik and Ravnitzky, trans. by William Braude, Schocken, 1992).
Not disturbing his father’s sleep meant more to Dama ben Netinah than making a readily available hefty profit.
My wife and I sponsored a light meal, or kiddish, this past Sabbath after the morning prayer service in honor of her late father, Myron Weiner. It was the twenty-third anniversary, Yahrzeit, of the death of Beth’s father. Beth prepared and delivered a brief talk before the kiddish. Like the story from the Talmud, her talk is, I believe, an excellent example of honoring one’s parent. I want to share it with you. Note: Parsha is a section of the Five Books of Moses read in the synagogue on the Sabbath.
When thinking about what to say about my father today, I tried to find a way to tie it in with the parsha. I finally decided that the connection was migration – the attempted and temporarily failed migration of Bnei Yisrael into the Land of Israel.
Today is the 23rd Yahrzeit of my father, Myron Weiner. My father was a political scientist who specialized in India. Although he researched and wrote on many topics, his primary interests were child labor and migration. One of the books he wrote is called “Sons of the Soil”; he dedicated the book to the memory of his father, who was an immigrant from Lithuania. “Sons of the Soil” is about migration and ethnic conflict in India. He also wrote globally on migration, addressing issues in Europe and other areas of the world. I vividly remember one Pesach, when my father suddenly realized at the Seder that this was the first recorded account of a mass migration. I don’t think he ever wrote about it, but he was very excited by the realization.
My father’s other primary interest was child labor and literacy. Perhaps his most influential work was “The Child and the State in India”, a book that had a significant impact on policy in India. It was the work that he was most proud of. It was also the book that perhaps best represented a major aspect of his character – his interest in and love of children. Despite being a busy professor and researcher, he was a very involved father. He spent much time with us, talking with us at length about all kinds of things. My brother and I both remember dinner conversations in which my father talked at length about current events, and it was always extremely interesting. We were strongly encouraged to join in the discussion, to ask questions, to share our thoughts. I think much of my intellectual curiosity, and whatever analytical skills I have, come from these near-daily dinner discussions.
His love of children also extended to his grandchildren. When they were young, my children spent a good part of every summer at my parents’ home in VT, where my father gave them the same attention (perhaps even more) than he gave my brother and me. When he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer at the end of 1998, my brother asked him if he had any regrets about dying. He said he had two: That he wanted to know what would happen in the world, and that he felt he still had much to contribute to his grandchildren.
Recently, I had an email exchange with a former student and subsequent colleague of my father’s who was also a close family friend. She wrote:
“I was talking to a young colleague the other day who was discouraged and defensive because of a turn-down he’d received from a journal… I suddenly remembered an incident involving your father, which I recounted to the young colleague. After your father’s death I had volunteered to your mother to help with your father’s papers—and she asked me to look through a stack of folders. In one of them there was a letter from a journal editor asking him to “revise and re-submit” an article that had been very sharply criticized by one of the (anonymous) referees. The referee’s long comments were included. It was clear that the referee did not know who had written the draft article. What really touched me were the comments your father had written in the margins of the referee’s letter—obviously notes to himself on how to rethink his argument, on what kinds of evidence to provide; on how to strengthen the presentation. There was not a trace of defensiveness in his penciled comments, or annoyance at the referee, or just even simple human irritation at some referee daring to criticize a distinguished leading scholar. So I told my young colleague—at all stages of our careers, we get criticism; we need to develop an ability to learn from it. Even Myron Weiner at the pinnacle of his reputation in the discipline…”
Not long after the start of the pandemic, my first grandchild was born. To my intense joy, his English name is Myron George. Although there is no relationship between their Hebrew names (Meir and Elnatan Chaim), my daughter made it very clear that she was naming her son for her beloved Grandfather. Of course any grandmother would be thrilled to have a grandchild named after a beloved parent, still I can’t help feeling how appropriate this is for someone who had such an interest in the welfare and growth of children. I hope and pray that young Myron George will grow to develop the intellectual curiosity and the incredible humanity that my father had.
May the memory of Myron Weiner continue to be a blessing!
All the best,