by Rena Y. Polonsky (New York, NY)
It is a short, shocking story:
“Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a cloth, placed it against both their backs and, walking backwards, they covered their father’s nakedness; their faces were turned the other way, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness.” (Genesis 9:22-23)
Noah becomes drunk and reveals himself, acting in a way that does not seem fitting for a man who is called righteous. And it is Noah’s children who are there to witness their father’s bizarre behavior, and care for him when he is incapable of caring for himself.
This strange story of uncharacteristic behavior and role reversals may sound all too real and true for a person whose parent has Alzheimer’s or Dementia. In what seems like a moment, our parents change before our eyes, doing things that seem incomprehensible for them, and we are left to care for these people we hardly recognize.
Our parents are our first role models. While pop culture and media provide us with idols and icons, our parents are real examples of strong people who do incredible and profound things–even when they are small acts–right before our very eyes.
Our parents are the ones who teach us to care and love. They are the people we expect to have answers and advice, even when we don’t want to hear it. Our parents are who we want to care for us when we are sick. But what do we do when they can no longer care for themselves, let alone us?
What happens when our parents can no longer care for themselves, but instead require us to take on the role that they have longed filled in our lives? What do we do when the parent we know is no longer the person sitting next to us? How do we explain to ourselves that the person we are caring for is still our beloved parent even if they don’t remember us all the time?
Noah revealed his own nakedness. He was intoxicated and shamed himself. Ham merely walked in on his father acting in an immature and disgraceful manner and then reports it to his brothers. The Eerdman Commentary states that “…since Shem and Japheth remedy their brother’s mistake simply by covering Noah up without looking at him, it is unnecessary to posit any acts of sexual intercourse by Ham.”
However, Shem and Japheth’s reactions do insinuate that Ham has done something wrong. Ham leaves his father in the vulnerable state and then reports to his brothers what he saw. Sarna comments that, “Ham compounded his lack of modesty and filial respect by leaving his father uncovered and by shamelessly [gossiping] about what he had seen.”
Ham sees his father in a state that we don’t normally see our parents in. Ham enters his father’s tent and is completely dumbfounded at seeing his father not only drunk, but acting in a dishonorable manner, and responds to the shock by blabbing to his brothers. Ham does not know that even though he has seen his father fall from “hero” to a regular man that he must still treat him with the greatest of dignity. And while, as the Etz Chayim commentary points out, “We lose a great deal if we come to see our parent or teacher as just another person,” we are still responsible for taking care of and honoring our parents, maybe even more so now that they have fallen from grace a bit.
Being a caregiver is never easy. We are constantly being asked to give of ourselves, with little time to take a breath and sort out our own emotions. We are overrun with the big and the little, never knowing which should take more precedence. We feel silly and dramatic worrying about how the health and well-being of another will affect us, yet knowing that it does change our lives. Being a caregiver to a parent only raises the ante on all of these emotions and questions.
When our loved ones are vulnerable, we must help to cover them and learn to accept them as human beings, just as weak and helpless as we sometimes are. Our parents and teachers are still our elders and honorable, even when they are no longer infallible. And, if we try hard enough to accept them as imperfect human beings, we may be able to see them as even greater heroes than we had before.
What’s more is that our parents are just as afraid and unsure of how to respond to their own vulnerability. Noah’s actions seem to not fit with what we know of him. Perhaps he responds to his changing status and his aging by heavily drinking because he does not know how to confront what is happening to him. Just as we must learn to accept our parents’ vulnerability, so too must we help them to adjust.
When we switch roles generously with our parents, when we become the caregiver and care for the one who has always cared for us, we have the potential to bring the greatest honor and respect to our parents.
As Ecclesiastes 3:12-13 reads: “My child, help your father in his old age, And do not grieve him as long as he lives. If his understanding fails, be considerate. And do not humiliate him when you are in all your strength.”
We honor our parents and raise them up, even when they can no longer do this for themselves.
Rena Y. Polonsky, a fourth-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR, serves currently as the rabbinic intern for the URJ Department of Jewish Family Concerns.
A slightly different version of this essay originally appeared at Jewish Sacred Aging, an online forum for the Jewish community offering resources for exploring the implications of living a long life. It is reprinted here with permission.
You can visit Jewish Sacred Aging at: http://www.jewishsacredaging.com/Home_Page.php