God Squad: Honoring your perhaps imperfect father

God Squad

Rabbi Marc Gellman God Squad

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.

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With Father's Day approaching, it is a good reminder that we so often underestimate or overlook the importance of a simple kind word to our parents. Their sacrifices so often go unappreciated or worse -- appreciated but unthanked. This is why I am such a big fan of Mother's Day and Father's Day, which are, let us be honest, mostly the creation of the flower/ candy/necktie/shirt/ socks/golfball industries. Still, behind the commercial hype, there's the simple yet noble opportunity to thank the people who gave us life. So please don't let Father's Day pass without including a kind word to your father.

I have not been able to do this for the past six years, since my father, Sol Gellman, died. Dad taught me to treat strangers with special kindness. Dad was always striking up conversations with workers and passersby. This embarrassed us, his children, and I'm proud to have embarrassed my children the same way.

Before E-ZPass, my kids would scream at me as we approached the toll booths into New York City: "Dad, for God's sake, please don't talk to the toll guy!" Their pleas did not help. I always talked to the toll taker as a simple act of kindness, but also as an act of honoring the life lesson of my father.

There is, however, a spiritually dark side to Mother's Day and Father's Day. They both presume that we all had loving, adoring, supportive, nurturing parents and that's sometimes not the case at all. I receive many emails from readers who have not been blessed with parents like mine. Some have grown up in abusive homes and some have grown up in homes with absent parents.

Their questions are usually about how they can possibly observe the commandment of honoring your father and your mother. My response is to first ask them to be as spiritually generous as possible when judging their parents. Many parents love their children without saying so. Many parents teach without words, and many parents are simply doing the best they can without possessing the parenting skills necessary to raise children effectively. The fundamental fact remains, however: With all of them, we would not be here without them.

I also often urge unhappy, complaining children to take a closer look at families from other cultures where parental respect is more ingrained and expected. I know such cultures have a danger of authoritarianism. I know they may tighten the leash on their children a bit too much, but there's something to be said for this way of constructing families. They teach responsibility, duty, modesty and respect -- and all of these are good things to teach in a culture that often teaches selfishness, arrogance and disrespect.

The point is that what you think was wrong with your parents is not always what was wrong with them. It could be what is wrong with your view of them.

One of my favorite rabbinical sayings is from the ancient Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani, who taught, "We do not see the world as it is. We see the world as we are." So my prayer for us all -- not just on Mother's Day or Father's Day, but every day -- is to find a way to love our parents as they are.

And then there's my favorite life lesson story of all time: A Cherokee chief said to his grandchildren, "Two wolves are fighting inside me. One wolf is fear, anger and envy. The other wolf is kindness, courage and love. The same two wolves are fighting inside each of you." One child asked, "Grandfather, which wolf will win?" The old chief said, "The wolf that will win is the wolf you feed."

Happy Father's Day. Feed the right wolf.