Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
Holidays like Mother's Day and Father's Day are not part of the religious cycle of time, but they both strike deep in my heart, where my faith lives. I recently wrote about the spiritual significance of Memorial Day, and now, after Mother's Day and with the approach of Father's Day, I want to offer prayerful thanks to our fathers and mothers.
Ironically, my first spiritual lesson from Mother's Day and Father's Day is the same as the often overlooked spiritual message of Memorial Day -- gratitude for what we have that we did not create.
We have freedom, but were born in a country and a time when we did nothing to create that freedom. This fact establishes the political and spiritual debt we owe to America. And what is true about our freedom is also true about our lives. We didn't give birth to ourselves. We didn't raise ourselves. We owe a debt of gratitude and respect to our parents.
It is this debt that accounts for the popularity of parenting holidays, which are celebrated in nearly every country, including those that don't use them to sell TVs and washing machines. We owe something to our parents for our lives -- a debt that is basic, inescapable and impossible to adequately repay. Religions of every type begin in gratitude, and this is also the origin of our need to set aside days to honor Mom and Dad.
I don't know, and don't much care, if the ways we're raised by our mothers are different in kind and caring from the ways we're raised by our fathers. Some scholars think so, but I honestly don't know. What matters to me is that our parents each tried to love us the best way they could and the best way they knew.
I ask all my students, "What's the most important life lesson you've learned from your father and your mother?" I've never added them up, but I'd say the majority of kids attribute to their mothers the life lesson, "Be nice to everyone." From their fathers, the most commonly mentioned would probably be, "Never give up."
We're not just fed by our parents; we are formed by them.
Sadly, I receive many heart-wrenching letters filled with tales of abuse and disappointment from readers who complain about the ways their parents have failed them. I receive very few letters of confession about the ways children failed their parents.
There's an old question, "Why can one mother take care of six children, but six children cannot take care of one mother?" I'd bet my life on the fact that when God adds things up, our parents' sacrifices for us far outweigh what we've sacrificed for them. I believe in the depths of my soul that parenting remains the single most selfless act we can perform in our brief tenure on earth. We children ought to be louder in proclaiming our gratitude, and softer in proclaiming our disappointment.
I think the reason we often take for granted the sacrifices of our fathers and mothers is that parenting is the result of a million small and easily overlooked acts of love. In 1913, Ina Duley Ogden wrote the poem, "Brighten the Corner Where You Are," which was later set to music as a hymn by Charles Gabriel. The poem was Ogden's response after she decided to stay close to home to care for her father after he suffered a stroke. The first stanza implores us: "Do not wait until some deed of greatness you may do, Do not wait to shed your light afar, To the many duties ever near you now be true, Brighten the corner where you are."
I recently named a baby girl, and the best prayer I could offer little Leah was the best prayer I know for Mother's Day or Father's Day: "May you grow to see the children of your children's children." If I could sing as well as, say, Arlo Guthrie, I suppose I'd sing the "Garden Song," which is really about parenting, not gardening. It begins: "Inch by inch, row by row, Gonna make this garden grow.
"Gonna mulch it deep and low, Gonna make it fertile ground.
"Inch by inch, row by row, Please bless these seeds I sow.
"Please keep them safe below, 'Til the rain comes tumbling down."