The commandment to “honour thy father and thy mother” is one that, one would like to hope, is usually relatively straightforward. Many of us (most of us?) can fairly easily point to evidence our parents are or were nurturing, supportive and loving … but one must always acknowledge those who cannot. Indeed, examples of not merely inadvertent but deliberate harm done by parents are not hard to come by in the headlines.
From the radio show of Rabbi Simon Jacobson:
When I was thinking about what to talk about this evening, a friend mentioned to me that he had a question that someone had asked him about how one honors parents who don’t seem to deserve honor. Then later in the day another friend asked me the same question, completely unrelated. So I guess that’s a sign that that’s the topic that should be addressed. I know it’s a very painful one, but at the same time a very relevant one to many people.
It made me think about the discussion we had last week with Mr. Dubner, about the issue of imperfect parents. Parents really do get a real bad rap, especially in our generation with everyone baring their souls in confessionals and the healing and recovery movement, but there’s a very good reason for it: parents definitely do shape their children.
At the same time, if you look into the Torah, for Jews particularly (yesterday was the Torah reading that included the Ten Commandments), the fifth of the Ten Commandments is “Honor Your Parents, i.e., honor your father and mother.” The Torah goes even further and promises that in the merit of doing that, you will have a long life. As a matter of fact, when the Ten Commandments are repeated a second time, in the final book (Deuteronomy), it even adds another element there: that you will not just have a long life, but you will also live in peace, and have a good life.
So tonight we’re going to address this issue of honoring parents. Every one of us has been a child, continues to be a child (hopefully our parents are alive), so it’s a very relevant topic and I welcome calls on all issues related to this topic (1-212-244-2050). I must say that many of us are very angry about this issue, so anger also relates to it because people have a lot of anger against their parents, against their childhood, the way they were hurt when they were still vulnerable and impressionable.
So what exactly are our obligations to our parents and what is this whole concept of honoring them anyway—particularly in a situation where on one end of the spectrum you don’t really feel that they deserve it, and on the other end there was even severe abuse; parents who have hurt their children in very profound ways. Issues that children have with parents who continue to haunt them, the scars that we pick up on different levels of abuse, whether it’s overt or subtle. How do we address that and what exactly is this fifth of the Ten Commandments of honoring parents?
I especially would like to hear from people who are very angry with their parents and also of course people who are very loving toward their parents. It will be interesting to hear from you the different dynamics in our relationship with our parents.
Last week I asked Mr. Dubner the following question, which we all have to ask ourselves: On the one hand, you look to your parents as your source of nurturing, a source of comfort, which even unhealthy parents definitely provide somewhat (I’m not talking about extreme cases of course) and at the same time, how do you separate the two feelings of love and hurt? The same parents who love you, have, on the other hand also hurt you?
For a child, even for an adult, it’s very confusing, and it becomes a very snowball type of combination of the good and the bad. As adults, we have the intelligence, the discretion to be able to distinguish.
But as children, that distinction isn’t that obvious and that’s a big quandary, because if you got from your parents healthy nurturing, and on the other hand they may have given you certain values that you really can’t embrace, or values that you see real faults in (you know, “the lies my father told me”), it’s the first time you realize that your parents aren’t perfect.
This is a serious issue. I’d like to begin by giving some perspective here, namely, the anatomy of what exactly the commandment “honor your parent” means.
Now, the real question that’s asked in Jewish thought, in Jewish philosophy, is a more fundamental one. Judaism does not believe in any intermediaries. In other words, we have a direct relationship with G-d. There are no partnerships, no intermediaries, no hired guns; each of us prays to G-d. G-d gave us a soul and empowered us with the ability to overcome our challenges in life. We have a mission. As I very often say on this show (Toward a Meaningful Life), “meaningful life” implies a direct mission that we have, a meaning and purpose in our lives. And that is a direct relationship with G-d.
So the question is asked, “Where is there any room for honoring anyone besides G-d?” It’s true, parents may have provided for us. Of course, if they were healthy they gave us nurturing. Many parents are selfless in their love and in their dedication to their children. But honoring your parents seems in some way to imply that parents have some type of partnership with G-d…but we should be honoring G-d alone who gives us life.
The Talmud does say that there are three partners in the birth of a child: the mother, father and G-d. The parents provide, so to speak, the stuff of which the body is made. G-d provides the soul. That’s why you can have a relationship between a man and a woman, a potential father and mother, husband and wife, and it doesn’t bear a child. So G-d is the third partner — the Creator of life.
So seemingly, birth should be honoring G-d, not the parents. We don’t recognize any form of “partnership” with G-d in creation. And one of the fascinating answers to this is that when we honor our parents, even healthy parents, we’re not honoring our parents, we’re honoring G-d who gave us life through our parents.
So, in essence, it’s really a recognition of G-d. For instance, there is a distinct law in Judaism that if parents tell a child to do something that transgresses G-d’s law, meaning the ethical laws of how we behave with each or other or any type of Divine law, any law that G-d dictates, the child does not have to comply with that request of the parents, even though there’s a commandment to honor your parents. But the commandment to honor your parents does not supercede the commandment of G-d because you honor your parents not because they have power or because they think they’re important, or because they provided for us, you honor them because G-d gave life to us through them.
And that’s a major distinction. That’s why if one has to choose between following a parent’s request and following G-d’s law, we defer to G-d. Honoring your parents is not an end in itself: there’s a meaning there, a significance, a spirit behind it — it is a means to honor G-d.
Now the interesting distinction that I’d like to make as well is that the commandment says, “honor your parents”; it doesn’t say “love your parents.” The Torah doesn’t tell us to love our parents. That means the commandment doesn’t include that. Honor can include that, but that’s an optional thing. There is a commandment to love G-d. There is a commandment to love your fellow. Why isn’t there a commandment to love our parents? Because they don’t always deserve our love. But if we dishonor the life that G-d gave us through our parents, then it’s not that we’re dishonoring our parents, we’re dishonoring ourselves, we’re dishonoring our own personal life.