Honor Thy Father by Miriam BiberVolume 4 , Issue 2 (Dec, 1990 | Kislev, 5751)
Honor Thy Father
By Miriam Biber
When asked to enumerate the Ten Commandments, most people remember to include the mitzvah"Honor thy father and mother."? It is one of the 613 mitzvot, and most of us can agree with its importance. It appears to be a rather? straightforward, noncontroversial commandment. In the abstract, who could argue about or refute the importance of honoring our parents? Our confusion begins when we start discussing "the how to" of this mitzvah.
Let us say that a parent suggests a person as a marriage partner. If the child chooses not to marry that person, is he or she not honoring his or her parents? Similarly, what if a parent wants a child to go into a family business, but the child chooses, instead, to be an artist. Is that disrespectful? What about someone who is more observant than his parents? Does he still need to and (some would ask), is it even possible for him to continue to respect his parents?
Obviously, we need to look to Jewish sources for answers to these questions. The Sefer Hakhinuch, which lists and explains each of the 613 mitzvot according to their mention in the weekly portions of the Torah, writes, ?What constitutes this honor? - to provide food and drink, clothing and raiment, and to take them in and lead them out.? (Vol. 1, Sedrah Yitro) The Sefer HaKhinuch then goes on to explain that at the root of the mitzvah is the concept of gratitude. As the author expresses it,
?It is fitting for a man to acknowledge and treat with loving kindness the person who treated him with kindness and he should not be a scoundrel, an ingrate who turns a cold shoulder - for this is an evil quality, utterly vile before God and mankind.? It is for a person to realize that his father and mother are the cause of his being in the world; hence, it is proper for him to give them every honor and benefit that he can, since they brought him into the world and then, too, labored through many troubles over him in his early years. (Translated by C. Wengrov, Feldheim Books). The Sefer HaKhinuch then goes on to point out that gratitude to one's parents leads to gratitude to God, the primary Cause of a person's existence. A person will realize that ultimately it is God who brought him into the world and who sustains him.?
How then does this principle translate into daily conduct with regard to our parents? The Sefer HaKhinuch's discussion of the concept of gratitude suggests that regardless of our opinion of how well we think our parents raised us, we still have a certain basic, transcendent obligation to show them gratitude, specifically to take care of their basic needs, especially if they are unable to do so for themselves. This perspective runs counter to many of the values prevalent in today's society. We live in a world which encourages people to view themselves and their accomplishments as having been self-made. We rarely recognize the contributions of others when assessing our accomplishments. As a result, we neglect to recognize the self-sacrifice that others made in order to allow us our own achievements. Just as it is easy to assume that humans give birth and create life without the assistance of a Divine creator, so, too, do children (especially adult children) carry the notion that they developed independently without the assistance of their parents' help. Not only do we not recognize how parents have helped us, but the prevalent world view encourages us to view our own problems as a result of our parents' inadequacies and deficiencies. The notion is, had our parents raised us right, we would not have been so troubled today. Somehow parents are often perceived as being harmful to our development. ?Parent bashing? (Yes, now there is a term for it!) has become quite popular these days.
Although there probably is a role for assessing how our parents have influenced our development, a description of how such an analysis should be carried out is beyond the scope of our present discussion. However, our conclusions about how well our parents raised us notwithstanding, we still must shoulder the responsibility described by the Torah to show gratitude to them. The mitzvah to show respect to one's parents is not contingent upon how well we feel they parented us. Just as the vast majority of parents took care of their children with an unconditional love; that is, they diapered, bathed and clothed them, even if they felt a particular child was unusually demanding or bratty; so too, we now have the responsibility of taking care of our parents' needs, regardless of how much we like or dislike their personality or agree with their lifestyle. As is true in all intimate relationships, there are often times when we are annoyed, angry or just tired of being with a parent. Nonetheless, the Torah expects us to take our parents to the doctor, or serve them tea should they request it, regardless of how we feel about them at that particular time.
Let us now return to the situation faced by children who have adopted a more Torah observant lifestyle than their parents. It is clear that children from less observant families are equally obligated to honor their parents. Consistent with the above discussion, our responsibility to show gratitude to our parents is not related to the degree to which parents have been able to serve as role models for Torah observance. The fact that a parent does not observe the Torah to the same degree or in the same way that a child does, does not negate all of the self-sacrifice the parents went through in order to raise their child. Again, it shows a lack of gratitude and appreciation for those who brought a person into the world, and who took care of him when he could not take care of himself.
Ethical Value Instilled
There is also a certain arrogance behind the assumption that it is not necessary to honor one's parents if they are not equally observant. Regardless of their level of Torah observance, most parents have instilled in their children many ethical and spiritual values that are an inherent part of leading a Jewish life. Qualities such as humility, compassion and gratitude are most easily acquired and internalized through a parent's example. Parents who may not be observant of some of the tangible mitzvot certainly are excellent mentors for teaching some of these attributes. It is simply a lack of gratitude not to appreciate the ethical and moral guidance that was, indeed, provided.
Another important reason for honoring one's parents regardless of their level of Torah observance, is to bring honor to the Torah and to sanctify God's name. If, after a child has become more observant than his parents, he shows less concern for them, the latter would then have a legitimate complaint. A parent might rightfully think, ?What kind of religion is this? My child creates more friction now that she is more observant. This religious stuff is dividing our family, not uniting it.?
The parent might think that the Torah encourages people to be self-centered and narcissistic, which is actually inopposite to Torah values. As part of the mitzvah of honoring one's parents, the child has the responsibility to find ways of spending time with parents. Differences in levels of observance certainly present some logistical obstacles, especially when individuals are in a transition process, but the child needs to be flexible and creative in overcoming them. If, for example, one's parents do not keep a kosher home,? eating together becomes more difficult. However, part of keeping this mitzvah means that the newly observant adult child must take the extra step to figure out a way to accommodate both his and his parents' lifestyle.
Besides showing gratitude, the other major aspect of the mitzvah is to ?revere? or to show respect to one's parents. The Shulkhan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law)(Vol.4, Chap.143) defines this as ?not occupying the place appointed for one's parent, such as his seat or place to pray.? In addition, we are instructed not to contradict our parents, since this could result in embarrassing or humiliating them. The Shulkhan Aruch gives the example of a son who witnesses his father doing something that is not in accordance with the Torah. Rather than directly pointing out to the parent that he was doing something wrong which might embarrass him, our Rabbis suggest putting it in the form of a question, such as, ?Dad, isn't it written in the Torah, such and such ?.?
Honor vs. Obedience
At this point, we must make a distinction between honor and obedience. To ?respect? one's parents means to bring them honor, but not to humiliate them. It does not necessarily mean that one always has to do what they advise. Returning to the examples given earlier concerning a parent who wants their child to marry a particular individual or wishes that she go into the family business; the Torah does not demand that a child follow a parents' advice. (Neither, of course, is it prohibited to do what one's parents say!) The mitzvah of honoring one's parents does require that a child consider a parent's opinion before drawing his own conclusion. But while disregarding or scoffing at a parents' opinion might be disrespectful, the Torah does not require or even desire, that we automatically carry out our parents' wishes. It is clearly the derekh or path that we choose or how we go about executing our judgment, in particular if it is contrary to our parents' advice, that is the concern of the Torah. The Torah describes the job of parenting as one which encourages children to be self-sufficient. This means that the adult child ultimately needs to choose for himself how to make the complex decisions of ault life.
The mitzvah of honoring one's mother and father puts the responsibility on the child to act in a way that leads to harmonious family relationships. As a family therapist and as a daughter, I can attest to the challenge that this creates. It is a formidable task for children to separate from their families (and for parents to let them do so) and for adult children to develop their own sense of self. The temptation is to either remain permanently ?a child? in one's family of origin, or to become so distant and removed from one's family that parent-child relationships are completely severed. It is a tricky business not to pursue either extreme. Our efforts to walk that fine line will help ensure that we observe the mitzvah of honoring our parents, and that our children will, in turn, do the same for us.
Note: I would like to formally thank my father (whose advice I seek out but do not always follow!) for the concern and guidance he has shown me throughout my life. May he and his wife have many more years of good health and happiness. I would also like to thank Rabbi Z. Posner of Nashville Tennessee for his assistance with this article and many other of my articles.
Miriam Biber Ph.D. is a staff psychologist at a day treatment program for emotionally disturbed children in the New York metropolitan area.