By Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Judaism is a tough religion to observe. I travel a lot to give speeches, appear in media, and promote Jewish values and support for Israel. I love nature, history and exposing my children to the wonders of G-d’s creation. Being kosher essentially means you can starve while trekking around, which is why I love traveling in an RV, in which we bring our kitchen with us.
I can handle the culinary depravation; I’ve gotten used to a can of tuna and lettuce. I also can handle the strictures of the Sabbath. In fact, the weekly detox from the poison of the daily news feed — these days, almost entirely negative and usually about political civil war in America — almost is a welcome respite. I survive the six Jewish fast days a year, which may be a form of cleansing, a purging of inner toxins and our reliance on material sustenance for survival when we also must remember that “it is not by bread alone that man shall live but on the word of the living G-d.”
The hardest commandments in Judaism are not the religious strictures, but the moral imperatives. For example, G-d ties our hands and does not allow us to enact revenge on those who harm us. Machiavelli famously said it is better to be feared than loved. So why shouldn’t we protect ourselves by ripping the heart out of those who hurt us? Yet, G-d forbids it and demands we show magnanimity to our opponents.
Perhaps the most difficult commandment in Judaism is the obligation to honor our parents. In my 30 years as a rabbi, countless people have approached me, struggling with honoring abusive, toxic or delinquent fathers and mothers.
This commandment is perplexing. Most children automatically love their parents. It’s instinctual and intuitive. Your father and mother are those who gave you unconditional love, raised you and took care of you. Why wouldn’t you love them? Why wouldn’t you honor them? If it’s so natural, why does G-d have to command it?
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? Talk about an unjust commandment! G-d is forcing you into a toxic relationship with people guilty of abuse, either the active abuse of inflicting harm or the passive abuse of neglect. Is a father who abandoned his children worthy of honor? Is a mother who did nothing but criticize her daughter, making her feel like a piece of garbage, deserving of respect?
The reason I say this is the most difficult of all commandments is that every person has a right — perhaps a need, an obligation even — to distance themselves from a dysfunctional relationship. No one would tell a woman to remain in an abusive marriage, so why would we tell a woman to stay in a relationship with parents who have spent their lives making her feel worthless?
Years ago, a talent agent with whom I was close sought my counsel on her deteriorating relationship with her mother, who would visit a few times a year and heap abuse on the woman’s husband. My friend told me her mother’s visits were ruining her marriage. She wanted to be a loving daughter, but she couldn’t put up with her mother disparaging her spouse. Although her husband did not give her an ultimatum, he clearly expected her to put him before his crazy mother-in-law. I told the woman that the Bible commanded her to honor her mother to the best of her ability — but not at any cost. The woman followed my counsel and welcomed her mother, who continued the abuse. Finally, the woman told her mother that she was cutting her out of her life for six months, until her mother got the message that she could not continue to ruin her daughter’s life.
For the same six months, the daughter stopped speaking to me, as well, feeling I had given her bad advice and G-d certainly would understand her putting her marriage before a toxic relationship. At the end of six months, when her marriage had been rehabilitated and she was a much happier person, she came back to me and said that as a rabbi, I had a responsibility to re-evaluate the counsel I was giving. “I now allow my mother to visit. But she has to stay in a hotel. She is not allowed to stay with us. And if she says one bad thing about my husband, I hang up on her. I’ve made peace with our broken relationship, and I no longer see myself as a bad daughter because I want to cut a bad person out of my life, even if she is my mom.”
Was she right? Was I wrong?
Dysfunction in families usually is generational. It becomes a family heirloom passed on from father to son, mother to daughter.
My parents divorced when I was eight years old. My mother moved us from Los Angeles, where I was born, to Miami Beach, where her parents lived. I did not grow up around my father. His absence was psychologically impactful. The one thing parents are supposed to give us is validation. Your mother and father are the ones designed to always make you feel you are worthy, you are sufficient, you are good enough. If you spend your life seeking your parents’ attention or approval, or love because it is not offered unconditionally, it can present mental and emotional challenges that at times feel insurmountable.
I badly wanted my parents to get back together and remarry. It was something I prayed for and dreamed about. Around the time of my bar mitzvah, when I asked them to reunite as my coming-of-age present — with no result — I began to give up on the possibility of a reunion ever happening. Looking back, I’m amazed I ever believed it possible in the first place.
Knowing I could not bring my parents together, the only thing left for me to do was create the family I did not have.
I married young, at 21, had nine children — thank G-d — and today, I am a grandfather of five. Throughout my life, I have endeavored to be closer to my father, which sometimes presented its own challenges, seeing as he married twice more in between and often was surrounded by people who had an interest in keeping him distant from his children. Many still are present today.
What would G-d say to me? How much of an effort must I make, once the effort begins to affect my own role as husband and father? The emotional and physical distance that existed between my father and his children when we were younger was something I always tried to close. Today, thank G-d, we are infinitely closer and i love spending time with my father. Even at age 52, I strongly feel I need his direction, affection and approval. But at what point do I say my responsibility is to ensure I head a functional family my own upbringing does not adversely affect?
If G-d has His way, I have to honor my parents regardless of their impact on my wife and children. G-d does not say to honor one’s spouse or one’s kids. He specifically commands us to honor our parents. But where do our first priorities lie?
In the Bible, Esau was a ruthless hunter and a terrible brother. It appears Jacob despised him for his cruelty and wished to have no relationship with him, especially after Esau pledged to murder his younger brother. Who could fault Jacob? Relationships with toxic siblings can be soul-destroying, , especially when they are jealous of you. But the one thing the Bible credited Esau with was that he honored his father, even as Esau seemingly did not much honor his mother. It was a virtue attributed to Esau, which the Torah says is worthy of emulation.
Was that virtue enough? Seeing as Esau was a terrible person in every other manner, was he redeemed through the respect he showed a father who was blind to Esau’s other fatal flaws and his brutal treatment of others?
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 family together amid Herculean challenges. 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 is heir to that tradition, who kept the faith alive; but Jacob is the man who raised a family dedicated to the principle of one G-d, none of whom diverged from that faith. Jacob created the family — however seriously flawed — that he never had. In doing so, 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, should a child marginalize toxic parents and seek to create his or her own nuclear family?
My answer is no. Parents can cause us severe psychological harm. But in including this commandment among the nine other most important rules of a moral and just world, G-d was out to teach us one of life’s most important lessons: to live with gratitude.
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 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 G-d 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.
My friend Dennis Prager often says G-d never commands us to love our parents but to honor them. He is right. Only an unjust G-d would command us to love abusive or toxic parents. G-d is fair and balanced, but honoring the source of our existence even when that source is a poisoned well is something our ultimate source expects.
I once counseled a man who does not speak much to his father, who was abusive to the man’s mother and neglectful of the children. When I told him he still had an obligation to honor his father, he laughed with irony. “ ‘Father?’ Sorry. That term means more than a sperm donor. My father inseminated my mother,” he said coarsely, “and then all but disappeared from my life. Why should I be expected to respect him? He’s a horror. I want him out of my life. He ruined me. I hate him.”
Those are fighting words. I understand his pain, but I don’t believe in an unreasonable G-d or a creator who asks the impossible. “But are you saying,” I asked him, “that you cannot find any love in your heart for a man as broken as your father? You say he is a cruel and brutal man. Yet sometimes we honor our fathers by becoming the men they could never be. We honor our fathers by creating ourselves not in their imperfect image but in the mold, and with the values, that G-d expects of us.”
Sometimes, we honor our parents 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, G-d is enjoining us to choose love over hatred, harmony over discord, gratitude over bitterness and life over the death of a relationship.
G-d knows we are capable of it. Therefore, He commands it.
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. But as I told the aforementioned man, 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 is healed.
Few things are as sad as children who use their parents as perfect examples of what they choose not to be. Few failures are as pronounced in life as your children marking you as the point in life from which they seek to pivot. However, human potential is limitless, and we are capable of healing ourselves amid family dysfunction.
A woman whose father abandoned her and her mother when she was a child got into a serious car crash while in her 20s. As she lay in the hospital recuperating, her bedside phone rang. She answered and a man introduced himself as her father and asked how she was faring. She froze, began to hyperventilate and could not speak. She held the receiver to her ear for a few minutes as the silence consumed her, then, trembling, she put down the receiver. She never spoke to her father again.
In telling me the story and asking me whether she had done the right thing, I was sure she hadn’t. I held my tongue because I could not understand what level of mental anguish would cause a daughter to hang up on a father who had reached out after so many years. How painful is it for a child to feel unloved and abandoned? How twisted does our soul become when the people meant to love us the most end up caring for us the least?
Years later, as I reflect on this story, what I would say to her now is that she should have spoken to her father. Honoring him at that moment meant saying to him, “You’re calling me for the first time. And before we begin any relationship, I have a question for you. When you left me and forgot about me, when you jettisoned and neglected me, was it because there was something wrong with me? Was I unlovable? Was I deficient? Was I unworthy? Or was it you? Were you the one who was incapable of love? Were you the one who was deficient?”
Is it possible that respectfully enjoining our parents to reflect on their own inadequacies as parents — and I emphasize the word respectfully — so they might grow to love is itself a high form of honor? Honoring our parents must mean making them into better people. Honoring parents does not mean being doormats on which to be stepped. At times, it means being assertive in our right to be respected and loved, but always with a view not to punish our parents but to inspire within them a desire to live up to their responsibilities as fathers and mothers.
An ancient prophecy from Micah says that in the end of days, “the hearts of the parents will be restored through their children.” Growing up in Chabad, we always took this to mean that in a secular age when so many Jews have been cut off from tradition, it would be a new generation of Jews who would reconnect their parents to the faith of their fathers. The prophecy foretold the rise of the ba’al teshuvah movement and a restoration of Judaism in a secular age. However, I now understand it also means children would one day teach their parents how to parent. Boys and girls would teach mothers and fathers how to love again — and it would all spring from a sense of cosmic and personal gratitude.
Being grateful for the blessing of life is the foundation of respect for parents. However neglectful, however imperfect, our parents gave us life and are the links in an infinite continuum that connects us to the ultimate source of Life. And a life lived in gratitude is a blessed life.
Gratitude is a failing commodity in today’s world. I can tell you that what most undermines a professional commitment to community is a feeling of not being valued by those whom we serve. I have seen many rabbis and communal professionals slowly suffer the effects of burnout because they feel forgotten by the people to whom they dedicated themselves. Relationships have become transactional, such that we’re all in it for something we might gain. Once they’ve squeezed all they can from the lemon, many decide it’s time to move on. The imprint of gratitude slowly subsides and we forget the people who sacrificed so much for us.
How many of us still reach out to teachers who inspired us in our youth? How many will stay in jobs for employers who took risks on us once something more lucrative is offered? The idea of a long-standing feeling of emotional indebtedness to strangers who showed us kindness — the fundamental Torah idea of “Hakarat Hatov” — is being cast by the wayside.
Of all the values I believe are critical to our goodness and humanity, gratitude arguably is the most vital. It speaks to a human ability to have another’s imprint make an impression on us, to have our DNA respond to affection and service. And those who cannot show gratitude cannot love. Those who cannot love are destined to die alone.
It was in an effort to obviate mankind’s most deeply felt problem — that of isolation and loneliness — that G-d 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 reject. For all 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.
G-d made honoring our parents one of the Ten Commandments so we could never just turn away from those who gave us precious gifts, however feeble the delivery. In so doing, He forced us to wrestle with our consciences, our humanity and most deeply held convictions. Is it any wonder we feel forever tortured by our parents? Yet, is it any wonder that throughout our lives, we still seek their validation and acceptance?
I remember shortly after he took the oath of office for the presidency, George W. Bush gave an interview and said how his father had looked at him and told him how proud he was. Imagine that. The man had just been sworn in as the most powerful figure on the planet. But what meant the most to him was the fact that his elderly father took pride in his achievement.
I recognize, of course, there are an infinite number of loving and devoted parents who absolutely are deserving of honor and respect. For them, perhaps no commandment is necessary. I have aspired throughout my life to be a member of that select group. I may have failed at some endeavors in life, but I never want to fail, G-d forbid, as a father. But as I grow older, I am keenly aware that for all the promises I made when my first child was born when I was 22 that I would parent perfectly, I have made many mistakes. My shortcomings as a father are as evident as my imperfections as a mortal human. As I’ve grown older, I have made peace with my inability to fix myself fully and not transmit any inner dysfunction to my children. I now understand that part of the respect I wish to earn from my children is having them witness how I wrestle with my nature to be a better man both for their and my own sakes.
As I crossed the boundary of half a century on G-d’s earth, I began to understand my role as father was not to be perfect but always to be present. My job was not to be a marble statue or iconic role model — I am human, after all — but rather, to give my children an eternal sense of validation and self-worth, imparted through my constant attention and focus. In short, my purpose as a father was to transmit to my children that they are objects of love, deserving of love and recipients of respect.
I will never forget the time I sat with the son of a famous man who died. I asked him how he would eulogize his father at a ceremony the media were sure to attend. He said to me simply, “I will remember that my father always made me feel special. He may have judged my actions but he never judged me. When I went through a period of rebellion and dressed provocatively, he would make a point of putting his arm around me in public to show everyone that I was perfect just the way I was.”
Is there any greater testimony to a man or a woman than children who remember him or her as having made them feel like they were good enough? That wasn’t some tall mountain they had to climb, some business they had to build, some ivy league university into which they had to be admitted, in order to be loved? Is there any higher achievement as a parent than not making our children earn our affection but to give it to them as a free and unconditional gift, just as G-d does the same with his creation?
When I hosted “Shalom in the Home,” a national TV show in which I traveled around the country in an RV to repair broken families, I had to promote the show to a large group of advertising professionals from America’s leading corporations in what is known as a “network upfront.” It would be the first time many of them would hear a rabbi speak. How would I persuade them that a man with a yarmulke and beard could connect to the American heartland? How could I convince them the first show to be hosted by a religious figure in prime time could play successfully in Kansas?
I got up, spoke softly and said this: “All of you today are here because you’re important. You control budgets of tens of millions of dollars. And the TV networks will wine and dine you here to get you to put your money behind its programming. But what happens when you get home? What if you’re super important at work, but as you step through your front door at night, your kids don’t run with a smile to greet you? What if you have to argue with them to get off their iPads even to say hello? What if their hug to you is limp, forced or nonexistent? Do you still feel super important? In the final analysis, are you a success in life if the people who mean the most to you think the least of you?”
As we all strive to keep up with the Joneses, impress our superiors, gain the respect of our colleagues, place ourselves at the center of an ever-expanding circle of possessions to prove ourselves worthy and accumulate the resources that will make us the envy of our peers, can we still call ourselves successes if the people who mean the most to us think the least of us?
Parents, are you listening?
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the author of 33 books. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RabbiShmuley.