Father’s Day — It’s A Mitzvah
Tue, 06/14/2011

Children sometimes ask, as mine did when they were younger, why, if there is a Father’s Day and a Mother’s Day, is there no Children’s Day. Although it’s not the response that I used, the classic one is that every day is Children’s Day.

That’s not exactly true, but according to the Hebrew Bible and subsequent Jewish law, by at least some definition, every day should be Father’s Day (and Mother’s Day, too). As a father of three, I have a certain degree of self-interest here, to be sure. Nonetheless, it’s an idea worth considering not only for the benefit of fathers and mothers, but because it offers a fresh approach to observing a day too-often defined by ugly ties and burnt hamburgers.

The Ten Commandments teach us to honor our fathers and mothers in Commandment Five, found in Exodus 20:12 and repeated in Deuteronomy 5:16. And perhaps less famously, but no less powerfully, Leviticus 19:3 declares, “You shall each revere your mother and father, and keep My Sabbaths; I am the Lord your God.”

So for those who take these teachings to heart, is Father’s Day (which falls on Sunday) anything special, or is it simply the day when other people make a big deal of something we attempt to do each and every day? I think that the answer to both questions is yes.

If you, like me, see the words of the Bible as making a claim on your everyday existence, then in some way or another, every day really is a Father’s Day — a day on which we honor and revere our dads. Of course, that we accept such an obligation does not mean that we always fulfill it.

Speaking at least for me, there is pretty much always a gap between what I feel myself called to do and my ability to fulfill that call. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It may be that the essence of spiritual living is to be aspirational — always striving to better fulfill our obligations, especially to others.

Among the biggest challenges connected to the maintenance of any relationship, especially ones which can be as complicated as those we often have with our parents (about as tough as theirs is with us, I imagine), is routinization. We get into ruts; we take people for granted, etc. Part of dealing with that is acknowledging that each day we are expected to do those things which keep us out of the ruts, which keep us mindful and loving. Hence commandments like those found in Exodus and Deuteronomy.

But our relationships with those commandments, like our relationships with our parents, can themselves become hollow routines that fail to inspire and evoke our best behavior. That’s where the brilliance of Father’s Day comes in.

Special days, days like Father’s Day, break routines; they shake up the norms and demand special attention. So while I get that cynics may argue that Father’s Day is simply an attempt to boost sales by card companies and stores that sell grills, ties and other traditional Father’s Day gifts, and that the especially pious among us will claim that every day is already Father’s Day, most of us can take advantage of this really wonderful opportunity to recharge one of the most important relationships in our lives.

To be sure, a dinner out or a new tie is no substitute for an ongoing relationship defined by love, honor and reverence. On the other hand, it’s amazing how a single act can re-engage such relationships. Perhaps that’s why, according to the sages of the Talmud (Kiddushin 31) and in so many other places, honoring and revering our parents is defined in dozens of “little” acts.

It all starts somewhere, so why not this Sunday? Pick up the phone, give a gift, prepare a meal or do any one of so many things which may be part of the ideal relationship 365 days a year, but will be especially noted on this one day.

Perhaps the best way to think of Father’s Day is as the Jan. 1/Rosh HaShanah of our relationships with our dads — a chance to reconnect and to remember how it could be for at least one day, especially because that one day could be the beginning of a whole new year in our relationships with our dads.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the President of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the author of “You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right.”

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