Talmidav Shel Aharon
11-5767 Mitzvah 41
January 8, 2007
Mitzvah 41 – It is a positive commandment to respect one’s father and mother.
Hafetz Hayyim: As it says in Scripture: “Honor your father and mother.” (Ex. 20:12)Now, what is the honor meant here? One is to provide food and drink and clothing, out of the father’s money. But if the father has no money and the son does, the son is compelled to sustain his father according to his means. And he is to attend upon his parents in the way that a bondservant attends upon his master. He is to honor his father even after his death.
If one’s father tells him, “get me water to drink,” and there is some other religious duty for him to do; if that duty can be done by someone else, he should occupy himself with honoring his father, but if that duty cannot be done by someone else, he is to carry it out. It is quite a different matter, though, if his father tells him to commit a sin, even if it is a misdeed only by the law of the Sages, he is not to listen to him: for all have the duty of honoring the blessed G-d.
Honoring one’s father takes precedence over honoring his mother since both he and his mother are obligated to honor his father. If anyone slights the honor of his father or mother, he disobeys this positive commandment, unless he acts with their knowledge and consent. A woman also bears this obligation; but what her husband prevents her from doing in this regard, she is free of doing.
It applies everywhere and always.
There are two very different topics that have to be discussed here. The first is the limits of this Mitzvah, and the second is the obvious sexism inherent in the Hafetz Hayyim.
We have a responsibility to honor our parents that is eternal. It applies to every person from the day they are born (actually, it is from the day they achieve legal age, Bar or Bat Mitzvah) until the day we die. It is an obligation that exists even after our parents are dead. A woman came to the Sages complaining that her son, the Rabbi, honored her too much. He would bend over and have her step on his back when she got out of bed and she would often walk on his hands lest her feet get dirty. The Sages were not impressed, even that, they declared, that even if he had done a thousand times more it was not too much honor for a mother. Another woman came and complained that her son, the Rabbi, who was one of the senior members of the high court, did not honor her enough. The sages went pale that such a thing by this Rabbi was possible and they asked her, what has he done? She replied, “He is such an honored Sage that I want to wash his feet and drink the water I have used to wash them and he will not permit me to do it.” The Sages rebuked the Rabbi and said that if this is how the mother wishes to act, he must not even then, no fulfill her wishes. These two stories may or may not be true but they make the point clearly, there is no end to the obligation to honor parents. In fact many Rabbis claim that the reason there is not a blessing for showing honor to parents is that the honor never ends so it never permits us to say that we have fulfilled it.
And there are no exceptions. If parents are abusive, one still has this obligation. If one is a convert and no longer keeps the faith of their parents, they still have the obligation to honor them unless, as the Hafetz Hayyim notes, they forbid one to fulfill Jewish Law or to do something that is sinful. In severe cases, where the presence of the parents would be damaging or excessively painful, then someone else can be hired to take care of them and the child can fulfill the honor due from a safe distance. One does not, therefore, have to submit to verbal or physical abuse from a parent, but that does not relive one of the obligation to care for them in their old age and make sure that they are physically safe and cared for. No matter how estranged we may be from our parents, we need to assist with their burial when they have died. Except as necessary, we cannot speak critically of them to others.
I cannot tell you how difficult this is for some whose parent is not worthy of the love that other parents may deserve. In fact, there is a great amount of mental illness in this world due to some who wish to honor parents who do not deserve such honor. One sage has a mother who was verbally abusive and he never rebuked her, except when they were in public, he might say to her, “That is enough mother” Even if a parent were to teach something wrong, one must not correct them, only to call their attention to something that will help them learn the matter correctly. If parents are destitute, we must pay for their needs from our own pocket, and if we don’t have the means to do so, the Sages insist that we must go begging door to door, and not allow them to beg themselves.
As we can see, this is a huge obligation. In cases where one feels that, due to circumstances, it is impossible to honor one’s parents, such a person should go to their Rabbi for advice and guidance on how to properly honor parents in such a difficult case.
The second part of our Mitzvah has to do with honoring the father before the mother and the mother’s obligations to the father. Clearly we have here an example of how times have changed from the Hafetz Hayyim’s time until our own. Parenthood is now a partnership, not a hierarchy. The principles of equality and the teachings of Conservative Judaism insist that both parents are equal in the family and children have equal obligations to both.
Lee Levitan writes: Regarding your January 1 divrei Torah on Mitzvah 39-40, this might be a nice opportunity to remind the congregation that Kol Nidre does not absolve one from vows that involve others, for which one remains responsible, but rather only for vows that involve only oneself or oneself and God.Rabbi Konigsburg replies: You are correct. Kol Nidre is about promises to G-d. If we have made promises to others that we have not fulfilled, we need to ask forgiveness from that person directly before we ask G-d to be forgiven. If that person turns us down three times, saying that we will “never” be forgiven, than we have fulfilled the duty to ask and we can then seek forgiveness from G-d. We cannot ask G-d to forgive us if we have not first asked others we may have harmed, for forgiveness. Also, we must be quick to forgive others who may have offended us.