The regular Talmud cycle this week focuses in large part on the commandment children have to honor their parents. This principle is among the most well-known of biblical adages. Even parents who don’t give a farthing about religion still quote it in moments of abject desperation. Let’s face it, parenting can be rough. It’s always nice to smooth the edges with a little respect. I just got a copy of Danya Ruttenberg’s new book, and the subtitle says it all: Nurturing the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder and Radical Amazement of Parenting.
The Talmud begins its discussion comparing the honor one owes God to the honor one owes a parent. Cursing God and cursing parents is strictly forbidden in biblical law. This parallelism makes sense following this proviso: “The Sages taught that there are three partners in the forming of a person: the Holy One, Blessed be He, and his father and mother” [BT Kiddushin 32b]. The Talmud continues, “When a person honors his father and mother, the Holy One, Blessed be He, says, ‘I ascribe credit to them as if I dwelt between them and they honor Me as well.’” Honoring parents helps God live within us.
The Talmud also posits that the opposite is true: “When a person causes his father and mother suffering, the Holy One, Blessed be He, says, ‘I did well in not dwelling among them, for if I had dwelled among them they would have caused Me suffering as well.’” A failure to understand the pain a parent can suffer at the hand of a child’s cruelty or ingratitude diminishes the Divine Presence, cause a shrinkage of that which is beautiful and holy.
And yet, honoring one’s parents can be a very difficult mitzva. Maimonides in discussing it calls it a mitzva gedola – implying perhaps both its significance and its challenge. I recall in pain studying this specific set of laws with a class of high school seniors in one of my first years of teaching. A very bright young woman who usually participated actively in class discussions was withdrawn and silent. When the other students left, she began to weep. This, she said, was not a commandment she could observe. In an abusive relationship with one of her parents, she lived in fear. Honor and respect were simply asking too much. Abuse is extreme. Children can also suffer immeasurably from selfish, narcissistic, or difficult parents who withhold praise or who outright abandon them.
Beverly Engel in her book Divorcing a Parent takes this sentiment head on:
Why isn't there a commandment to ‘honor thy children’ or at least one to ‘not abuse thy children’? The notion that we must honor our parents causes many people to bury their real feelings and set aside their own needs in order to have a relationship with people they would otherwise not associate with. Parents, like anyone else, need to earn respect and honor, and honoring parents who are negative and abusive is not only impossible but extremely self-abusive. Perhaps, as with anything else, honoring our parents starts with honoring ourselves. For many adult children, honoring themselves means not having anything to do with one or both of their parents.
While we might appreciate Engel’s anguish, Judaism would never condone such an approach. The Talmud discusses legal cases where a parent embarrasses a child publicly, and the child should say nothing in response. If a parent steals from a child or, as the Talmud case presents it, a parent takes a money purse from a child and throws it into the sea, a child should remain mum. A child can take a parent to court to retrieve the lost money, but cannot disagree outright. This is even the case when a parent transgresses Jewish law. A child must be very careful in correcting a parent in order to avoid shaming him.
Why? There is a basic and fundamental understanding in Jewish law that we exist because our parents put us into the world and this fact catalyzes certain fundamental responsibilities: in the event that a parent cannot feed, clothe or transport himself, a child is obligated to do these functions or provide for them, much the way parents did these for their children. The reciprocity comes from responsibility to the one who creates you. Note: there is no commandment to love one’s parents.
Rilke, in his Letters to a Young Poet had this to say about parents: “Don’t ask for advice from them and don’t expect any understanding; but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is strength and blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.”
For parents with parents, many of us become keenly aware that we never understood or fully appreciated all that was done to raise us until we raised our own children. And we learn over time to forgive our parents for not living up to our expectations because of the mistakes we make with our own children. We, too, will come up miserably short. But, in the end, we are here because they put us here. And maybe sometimes, in the words of the Haggada, it is enough.