I’m presenting Pause for Thought on Radio 2 for the next five Wednesdays at the bright and early time of 5:45am. This week’s script is on-line at
As you know, it’s Mothering Sunday this weekend; a time for children of all ages to buy cards, chocolate boxes and floral bouquets for our mothers.
Mothering Sunday is a post-biblical phenomenon, but the Bible certainly stressed the importance of honouring parents. It’s one of the Ten Commandments. As a Rabbinical student I remember feeling genuine shock as I realised how the great collection of Rabbinic teaching known as the Talmud understands this command.
I’d assumed honouring your mother had something to do with being an obnoxious teenager and I knew a lot about being an obnoxious teenager. But it turns out that the Talmud has in mind adult children honouring aged mothers.
‘How far do you have to go to honour your mother?’ the Talmud asks.
Take the case of Dama ben Netina, Mayor of the ancient city of Ashkelon. Dama was presiding over the City Council when his mother came up to him and beat him over the head with her slipper and he didn’t embarrass her. She beat him so hard the slipper fell from her hand and Dama picked it up and handed it back to her. That, the Rabbis say, is honouring one’s mother.
Or another story – this one of a man who stood by and watched his mother fan money off the back of a ship, money he had presumably been imagining would come to him as an inheritance.
These tales, 1500 years old or more, feel starkly contemporary. To me Dama’s mother seems to be suffering some kind of dementia, she’s not fit for civilised company, but what’s Dama supposed to do – drop her off in a care home?
And the man who watches his inheritance be frittered away reminds me of many in my community who struggle as the costs of providing care for elderly parents eats up the value of homes and savings they might have thought would come to them.
In the Jewish tradition the real test of honouring one’s parents comes when honouring comes at a cost, it might be embarrassing, it might be expensive, it might be distressing. Caring for the mothers who in our earliest days cared for us so completely brings many challenges but these are the women who brought us into the world and we need to be prepared to do better than a card, a box of chocolates and a floral bouquet.