Parshat Shemini: It Needs a Capital, a Symbol & a Number

The other day, an elderly friend of mine asked for some help with her technology.  She was trying to access an online shopping account one of her kids set up for her a while back but she couldn’t log into the account.  We spent a fair bit of time circling around the question of what her username might be.  We tried her email address –didn’t work.  I asked if there were other email addresses around the time the account was set up –we tried those –didn’t work.  We tried variations of her name: first name and last name, first name with a ‘dot’ and then the last name, first initial with the last name, first initial with a ‘dot’ and then the last name…we got nowhere.

I asked if she tried asking her adult child (the one who set up the account) what the logins are.  Yes, she said, but he’s working and won’t get back to her until that evening.  So we headed to nicknames, grandparent nicknames, pet names, street names, old Yiddish words –nothing worked.  I began to think about what was going to happen when we had to try a hundred passwords, and a cold sweat formed on my brow.  Clearly, even ten wrong password attempts would lock us out of her account, and it would then open an entirely different online nightmare of getting it unlocked.  I strongly suggested we quit while there was no damage done, and wait for nightfall, when her son could give us the logins.

The next day I found out that my friend’s son had set up the account in his own name, his personal email, with a password he created.  I couldn’t quite understand why it wasn’t just considered his account.  In other words, why is it considered his mother’s account if he set it up, designated access logins, and kept watch and control over the account.  When I mentioned this to one of my kids, they said it sounds like the son is parenting his parent –the phrase Judaism doesn’t know what to do with.

Parenting one’s parent is a catch phrase that showed up a number of years ago to describe what popular western culture has designated as the challenge of the ‘sandwich generation’.  Those people who are sandwiched between aging parents above them, and growing or adult children below them.  They are the cream in the middle of the generational oreo cookie and they feel squeezed.  The assumption is that their elderly parents have somehow begun to age backwards, and are now so young they require active parenting.  

Judaism doesn’t have a problem with acknowledging that as we grow old, we may need more care.  In fact, the commandment to honour our parents continues into our parents’ senior years.  It extends over the lifetime of the child, not the parent.  In other words, even if someone’s parents have passed away, the commandment to honour their memory continues as long as the child is alive.  As an elderly person may need increased care, Judaism would put this increase in the ongoing category of respecting and honouring our parents.  Jewishly, the problem isn’t that more care is required, the problem is that we’re calling it parenting.

We can’t possibly parent our parents.  The moment we accept that perspective, we take our eyes off them as our primary and foundational teachers.  They continue to teach us our entire lives, whether they are physically with us or not.  Our respect for them, and view of them in that parenting/teaching role is never mitigated by age, wellness or acuity.  Helping someone is not defined as parenting.

When our parents decide to pass a torch to us (Seders at our house, Friday night dinners prepared in our homes…), it is their choice.  If we feel they are working too hard on some things, we can offer to share the load, but could we take the torch and shoulder the burden without their asking?  Can we simply take the torch, for their own good?

This week’s Torah portion, parshat Shemini, is rich with ritual, ceremony, grandeur, and holiness.  But part way through, no one reading it cares anymore because there’s a shocking and horrific moment when two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, are killed for bringing “foreign fire” to a sacrifice.  Aaron is so dumbstruck he is paralyzed.  Thousands of years later, we read it and we’re shocked and horrified again.  What could be so unspeakable about “foreign fire”?

Many of the commentaries try to resolve this huge theological question, but we never get one answer that satisfies.  In the midst of this spiritual turmoil of understanding, a commentator named Abarbanel focuses us on the specific sacrifice these sons of Aaron were involved with  –it was the sacrifice only Aaron was supposed to bring.  Now our minds reel.

Not long before these events, Moses was on Mount Sinai and Aaron was leading the people at the bottom of the mountain.  When Moses came down, he saw the golden calf and Israel worshiping it.  When he asked Aaron what happened, Aaron said he didn’t know what happened, he threw gold and silver into a fire and out came the image of a calf so he built it.  It is precisely the definition of what we would consider ‘foreign fire’.  It’s not the torch Aaron ever intended to pass to his sons, but it’s the torch they took.

The sacrifice Nadav and Avihu began to make was the sacrifice only the High Priest could do.  In some way, they believed they should rise to the authority of their father and take his place.  He hadn’t asked for help, and their initiative was misplaced, disrespectful, even offensive.  The backlash is severe, and still troubles us today.

Our parents hold many torches throughout their lives.  Some of these torches are intended for us, but not all of them are headed our way.  One of our strongest Jewish values is to recognize that our parents are always unique in our lives, and they remain unique to us throughout our entire lives.  Thinking we can parent our parents is a misleading concept that will likely result in our overstepping.  Choosing to recognize that as our parents may need more from us, they are actually teaching us that we could always find more within ourselves, even when we thought we couldn’t.  Indeed, we are sandwiched in that case, since our children are always watching us, and we are now showing them that they too have strength within them, quietly waiting for if they need it.  

Preserved that way, the generations stay as they should, while each generation challenges the one to come, and in that way secures our future.  

As an aside, I have begun to keep an old address book of mine which I’ve designated only for keeping an alphabetical, written record of my usernames and passwords.  My kids think it’s cute, one of them used the word ‘vintage’.  I’ll wait patiently for the day I know they’ll figure it out.

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1 thought on “Parshat Shemini: It Needs a Capital, a Symbol & a Number”

  1. This was a wonderful piece. I thoroughly enjoyed it

    I was looking forward to receiving your email all day.

    You truly brighten my day with your insight and honesty.

    Shabbat shalom

    Reply

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