Honoring Parents and To Kill A Mockingbird

By Rabbi Ed Gelb (with significant contributions from my brother, Jim Gelb) 

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, my all-time favorite novel. I have read it more than thirty times.  I have been pondering why this novel continues to speak to me after three decades.  It can't be because I relate to the segregationist southern culture of the 1930s.  And Jem, Scout and Dill's inclination to while away their summer hours seems very different from the 19 active summers I have spent at camp. 

This week, I had an "aha" moment when I thought about To Kill a Mockingbirdand my other favorite book, the Torah, together.  To Kill a Mockingbird is about the relationship between children and parents, and more specifically, between a father and son.  It is about how Jem discovers how vulnerable his father, Atticus, is while reestablishing why he holds him in high esteem.  I can relate to that.  The Torah, too, chronicles many complex father-son relationships (think Abraham with Isaac and Ishmael, Isaac with Jacob and Esau, Jacob with Joseph and his brothers).  When I read parshat Va'etchanan, in which Moshe reviews the ten commandments, I realize how deeply meaningful the mitzvah of honoring one's parents is to me.

Atticus Finch, who will forever look like Gregory Peck in my mind, reminds me of my hero, my father.  Both are lawyers, both are unlikely to suit up for the Methodists in the annual football game, and both are gentleman who pursue what is right no matter what society around them says.

Throughout our lives, our relationships with our parents evolve.  As young children we hold them in awe and bask in their strength.  In adolescence we question their very worth.  As adults we begin to formulate a realistic view of who they are, accept their shortcomings, and gain a deeper appreciation for their true characters. Throughout the novel, Jem's view of his father shifts through Lee's brilliantly depicted scenes: when Atticus shoots a rabid dog; in the courtroom when the reverend tells the kids to stand as their father passes; and when Scout describes how her dad will sit with Jem all night and be there in the morning when he wakes. 

Those who know me know that I feel emotion deeply but don't really cry.  When Atticus shoots the dog and Jem realizes that his unathletic dad is a "dead shot," I squeeze a few tears out.  There is a moment when sons think their dads can't do anything anymore – that they have become "old."  When the sheriff turns to Atticus and begs him to shoot the dog, Jem sees his dad in a new light.  I'm pretty sure my dad isn't a marksman, but over the years there have been moments when I have glimpsed his extraordinary capabilities that represent strength and security to me.

Tom Robinson's trial ends badly; Atticus Finch has lost.  In a terrible miscarriage of justice, a white jury convicts a clearly innocent black man.  Jem, Scout and Dill are sitting in the balcony with the local African American community,  all of whom stand in respect for Atticus.  It is at this moment, even in defeat, that the enormity of what Atticus had done comes home to Jem.  He sees his dad through the eyes of others and realizes why he is a great man. I have been fortunate to have people regale me with stories of what a great and moral person my dad is.  How he established friendships between and among clergy of different denominations and faiths and brought them together for common causes, such as mobilizing to fight to free Soviet Jews.  (As a young child, I saw him provide former refuseniks with a place to live while they transitioned to life in America.)

While the scenes with the dog and in the courtroom are dramatic, Lee also shows us how a parent can quietly, unassumingly, be there for a child – as when Atticus stays at the injured Jem's bedside through the night.  Atticus knows his limitations.  You cannot expect to win an unwinnable trial, you cannot stop all hatred, but you can teach your children by acting on the town streets the way you do behind closed doors.  The essence of Atticus is that he is the epitome of a dugmah (example).  It is his steadfast and forthright morality that makes him so laudable.  I think about my father's refusal to speak ill of others, or the lengths he would go to rectify a situation in which he was given too much change or undercharged on a bill.  His quiet examples are always with me.

Of course, for many of us, we become parents ourselves and gain an even greater appreciation for just how hard it is.  I think the reason why honoring my parents is so important to me is because they are so deserving of that honor. (Believe me, I could do a whole separate d'var on my mother.)  It is really no irony that To Kill a Mockingbird impacted me so.  For it is my parents' love of books and Torah that has set me on my life path.  I can't wait to read it again.

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