Honor Your Parents, the Bible’s Hardest Commandment
I’ve been shuttling between New York and Los Angeles to visit my father who has not been feeling well. It is a ritual I’ve observed for years but now with far greater frequency as his health has faced challenges. At first I did not disclose any of this, feeling it was a private matter. But then, watching so many publicly call for prayers to be said for ailing loved ones, I decided to harness the millions of followers I am fortunate to have on social media to pray for my father’s health. The response was bigger than almost any call to action I have ever made on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and our mailing lists. Tens of thousands of messages poured in for prayers for my father from people from all over the world, from every religion, from every ethnicity, for Yoav ben Eshrat, my father’s Hebrew name.
The overwhelming response touched me deeply. And it made me ponder the question why.
I have always promoted family and have spent so much of life saving marriages and promoting healthy, intimate relations between husband and wife. But why were people so interested in how to properly honor parents?
I believe the reason is this: of all the commandments in the Torah, honoring our parents is easily the most difficult and nearly everyone struggles with it to some degree or another. I am fortunate to have a father I truly love. But so many children feel their parents have caused them incalculable pain and harm.
The hardest commandments in Judaism are not the religious strictures but the moral imperatives, with honoring your father and mother being at the top of the list.
On the one hand, most children automatically love their parents, those who gave you unconditional love, raised you, nurtured you, and validated you. To return that love is natural. So why would God have to command it?
On the other hand, if your parents gave you none of those things — if they ignored you or inflicted serious psychological and emotional scarring — why should you be obligated to honor them? In my 30 years as a rabbi, countless people have approached me who are struggling with honoring abusive, toxic or delinquent fathers and mothers. Is a father who abandoned his children worthy of honor? Is a mother who did nothing but condemn her daughter, making her feel like garbage, deserving of respect?
Every person has a right — an obligation even — to distance themselves from a dysfunctional, toxic relationship. No one would tell a woman to remain in an abusive marriage. So why would we tell her to stay in a relationship with parents who have spent their lives making her feel worthless? This conundrum becomes all the more potent when the stress of a noxious relationship with one’s parent begins to bleed into one’s own nuclear family — consuming one’s marriage, for example — as is often the case.
In the book of Genesis, a variation of this saga seems to play out. Esau is a ruthless hunter and a terrible brother. But the one thing the Bible credits Esau with was that he honored his father, even as he seemingly did not much honor his mother. But honoring parents is a virtue attributed to Esau, which the Torah says is worthy of emulation.
By contrast, Jacob is faulted for not sufficiently honoring his parents and, the Talmud says, experienced the pain of separation from Joseph as karma for not having seen his parents for two decades. Yet Jacob is the father of the Jewish people and we all bear his name, Israel. We are not Abramites or Isaacites, but Israelites. Why? Because Jacob alone, unlike father Isaac or grandfather Abraham, kept his own nuclear family together amid Herculean challenges — even at the cost of a decades-long distance from his own parents. True, Jacob made catastrophic errors, such as favoring one child above others, leading to near-fatal jealousy among his children who ultimately sell Joseph into slavery. Yet, whenever we read about Jacob, his kids always surround him. Before anything else, he is a patriarch, a family man.
Abraham is the father of monotheism. Isaac kept that faith alive. But Jacob is the man who raised a family dedicated to the principle of one God, none of whom diverged from that faith. Jacob created the family — however seriously flawed — that he never had. In so doing, he became the patriarch of a nation that at its core is a family. Esau, who did not create a nuclear family, fathered tribal chieftains who gained tremendous power but were cut off from the Jewish nation.
So, can a child marginalize parents for the sake of creating his or her own nuclear family?
Well, God tells us no. Even as our own families take precedence, and even if parents can cause us severe psychological harm — and even as the founder of the Jewish people seemed to fall short in this regard — God still demands in the moral bedrock of his Torah, the Ten Commandments, that we live a life of gratitude by honoring not only our creator, but our creators as well.
The most serious error in understanding the commandment to honor our parents is to believe it’s about patriarchy or honoring our elders when, in truth, it’s about an emotional indebtedness — an eternal sense of gratitude — to those who gave us life. The former would allow us to ignore parents who are not our ethical elders but our moral inferiors — or worse, moral degenerates. The latter, however, forces us to acknowledge that of all the gifts God gives us, the gift of life is by far the most precious. We dare never forget it. We are forever indebted to those who bequeathed it.
Gratitude is the highest Jewish value, the mountain’s summit of virtue. It speaks to a human ability to be touched by the kindness of strangers, to have the love shown to us by others make a serious impression, a lasting impact. To have our DNA respond to affection, service, and whatever else has been gifted to us by others.
It was in an effort to obviate humankind’s most deeply felt problem — that of isolation and loneliness — that God commanded us to honor our parents. The creator made sure we would struggle almost daily with the eternal article of gratitude and emotional indebtedness, leading us to live on an incline toward those whom we might otherwise ignore, forget, or even reject.
Even to those who have told me in counseling sessions that their parent ruined their lives, I say, “But that presupposes that you had a life to ruin, a life which they gave you.” It may not be the most profound argument, but its truth is as evident as our very existence.
I’m not saying we always have to be around parents who destroy us. To the contrary. A certain distance sometimes is essential and necessary. There will be times when we need a respite from the relationship. And if a parent is guilty of serious sexual, physical, or violent abuse, a permanent break may be necessary, however unfortunate and tragic. Still, visiting, phoning, caring, and showing love to our parents and having our children do the same makes us into the moral giants our fathers and mothers may have failed to be. By modeling love and respect for parents, the next generation can be healed.
In the case of “bad” parents, moreover, perhaps we honor them most by becoming the people they failed to be and ceasing the heirloom of generational dysfunction that consumes so many families. But that is impossible if we live lives suborned with bitterness and absent of gratitude. In the obligation to honor our parents, God is enjoining us to choose love over hatred, harmony over discord, gratitude over bitterness, and life over the death of a relationship.
God knows we are capable of it. Therefore, He commands it.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 33 books, including Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RabbiShmuley.