Monday, May 5, 2008

A Day of Learning

I went to a "Yom Iyun" (Day of Learning) given by Mrs. Tzipporah Heller yesterday. As I've said in previous posts, I love Tziporah Heller and her fiery, tell-it-like-it-is teaching style. For this Yom Iyun, she taught five classes from a small podium, with no notes in front of her other than the program's schedule. Once she completed each class, she looked at the schedule, checked to see what the next topic was, retrieved that class from her brain and taught it flawlessly. Her encyclopedic knowledge of Tanach and meforshim is incredible. Her delivery is riveting. When I grow up, I want to be Tziporah Heller.

I hadn't been to a Yom Iyun in a very long time. When I was younger, my community used to have incredible Yom Iyun programs on the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, so that the fast days would not be wasted lying on couches doing nothing. My age is showing, as I found that sitting through five consecutive classes gets really tiring, even when they are interesting. When I think about what I used to endure in college, well, I just don't know how I did it. Whenever I have a crazy thought about going back to grad school, I need to remind myself that I am an old, tired hag.

After a Tziporah Heller session, I usually walk away with some new insight on Judaism that I don't necessarily like, but I find interesting. This time was no exception. She gave a great class on the Torah approach to difficult relationships. Fascinating stuff. She talked about friends, and about how "v'ahavta l'rayecha camocha" comes into practice when you have to deal with people you don't really like that much. For starters, she said, you need to be honest with yourself and admit to yourself that you don't really like that person so that you can face up to it. Then you need to ask yourself what you can learn from So-and-So even though you don't like him. She said there are reasons that God has us interacting with different types of people and there is almost no one from whom a person couldn't learn something about himself or about the world. I actually agree with this. I do find, though, that interacting with some people is so irritating, it is not worth the self-knowledge gained.

Later on in the class she talked about familial relationships, which fall under an entirely different set of rules from simple friendships. One of the more interesting things that came up was the incredibly unshakable obligation we have to honor our parents. We don't have to love them, which is interesting because we are obligated to love our friends and we are obligated to love God (v'ahavta es Hashem elokecha b'chol levavcha....) but the Torah seems to acknowledges the unpleasant truth that some parents are unlovable. Because they have brought us into this world though, we need to respect them and see to their needs, no matter what the situation. Here was the shocking implication: if your parents physically or sexually abuse you, you may, of course, remove yourself from the danger and physically distance yourself from your parents, but you are still obligated to honor them. We were all blown away by that. This runs completely counter to 21st century secular values. So, as a real-life example, if your parents beat the hell out of you when you were younger or your father molested you, but if either parent needs, say, a medical aide when they are elderly and cannot afford it, you are obligated to pay for one and arrange the care for them. You are not obligated to be near them but you owe them that fealty, simply because they are the ones that brought you into this world.

I used to have a friend from college, Nicky, who was raised in a very strict Catholic home. Her parents beat her repeatedly when she was younger...I'm not talking about spanking, I'm talking about a hanger and a belt....and when they walked in on her 34 year-old uncle molesting her when she was 14, they accused her of being a slut. Oh yes, they were lovely people. Today, she refers to her Dad as "the Sperm Donor" and her M0m as "the Birth Mother" (mostly behind their backs). Nicky's been through therapy and she's surprisingly healthy and well-adjusted, married with a great husband and kids whom she adores and spoils. And yet, once a month or so, she drives out to Connecticut with her family and visits the Sperm Donor and Birth Mother. She sends cards on birthdays and holidays and encourages her kids to have a relationship with them (although she never leaves them there unsupervised). I know she hates what they did to her and will never forgive them, but now that they are elderly, she has chosen to let it go and have some sort of relationship with them, because, after all is said and done, they were her physical conduits into the world. Her words, not mine.

When I am told about parents like this, I am so grateful for my own parents. My Mom is a pill and drives me crazy, but she loves me and has always been incredibly generous and nurturing. My Dad's yahrtzeit is coming up, and when I think about how much I miss him and our relationship, I am overcome with emotion. I owe my unshakable self-esteem to my Mom and Dad. They were far from perfect parents, but they never left me with any doubt about their love for me.

Anyway, back to the Heller Yom Iyun. Last thing that Mrs. Heller tried to impress upon us is that we spend a large portion of our lives telling ourselves that we have so little and need so much. How very true. I probably do that several times a day. She said that we could completely change our lives and and our outlooks if we would sit down one day, make a mental list of everything that is going right in our lives, tell ourselves that really, we have so much and need so little. As she often does, she emphasized the importance of serving God in the here and now, where He has chosen to place us, whether or not it coincides with our own dreams of where we would like to be.

Inspiring, yes. Easy to follow, no. But nothing that is worthwhile is easy, yes?


Shmilda said...

>but if either parent needs, say, a
>medical aide when they are elderly
>and cannot afford it, you are
>obligated to pay for one and arrange
>the care for them. You are not
>obligated to be near them but you
>owe them that fealty...

I hate to quibble, but halacha is generally framed as exactly the opposite. One is not required to spend money on their parents, but one is required to serve them.

Anonymous said...

If you want to read about real extremes in family relationships, check out "Escape" by Carolyn Jessop. She was part of the polygamist community on NW Arizona (that later moved to Texas). Miraculously, she got out with her 8 children.