How Can You Honor Bad Parents?
Dear Jew in the City,
I know that the Torah tells us to honor our parents. But what is one to do when those parents are not good parents. When they hardly raise you, possibly resent you and are often distant? If a child is neglected or even hated by his mother- how is he to honor her? Please help me understand.
Thanks for your question. It might surprise you to learn that, sadly, this is a fairly common question. It’s an unfortunate reality that there are some bad parents out there. Some are well-meaning but ineffective. Others may be neglectful, negligent, or outright abusive. However, the Torah’s definition of honor is pretty narrow. The Torah does not require us to love our parents, or even to like our parents; it only requires that we respect them. We owe them this much for providing the gift of life even if their parenting skills are otherwise wanting.
I’ll give you a non-parent example. Let’s say for the sake of argument that I have some major issues with our current president. Be that as it may, when I meet him, I don’t scream at him about the economy or his foreign policy. I treat him with respect because that’s what the office deserves regardless of what I may think of the person who holds that office. The same is true with parents.
The Torah requires that we not contradict our parents. We may not sit in their designated spots. If they ask us to do something, we do it. If we must disagree or refuse a request, we must do so politely, without raising our voices. These are ways in which we respect our parents; they are things that can be done even if a parent is aloof or not a particularly pleasant individual. We are not required to shower our parents with kisses and affection.
There are some nations that may never marry into the Jewish people because of the way they treated us. These include Ammon and Moav but, surprisingly, not Egypt. Regarding Egypt, the Torah says, “you shalt not reject an Egyptian because you were a stranger in his land” (Deuteronomy 23:8). Egypt’s crimes against the Jews, with the slavery and the oppression, were far greater than those of Ammon and Moav but, unlike Ammon and Moav, we owe Egypt a debt of gratitude for taking us in during the time of Joseph. Things later went awry, but that doesn’t erase the good that they did for us. Similarly, when a parent ignores or mistreats a child, it cuts deeper than the same misdeed would when perpetrated by someone else. Nevertheless, it doesn’t change the fact that they also have done good for us, by giving us life if nothing else.
It should be noted that there are times when we may, or even must, disagree with our parents. For example, one is not obligated to marry a suitor that their parent prefers, nor is one required to live where their parents prefer they live. If one’s parent wants him to violate the Torah (say, “Drive me to bingo Friday night” or “Here, eat this BLT I made you”), one is obligated to decline. This is because, while we must listen to our parents, both we and our parents must listen to G-d. (Sergeants outrank privates but privates, sergeants, captains and colonels all must listen to the Commander-in-Chief.) Refusal must be polite, however, never raising one’s voice and certainly not a hand.
Honoring a parent is a difficult mitzvah, even when the parent and the child have a good relationship. It’s all the more complicated when relations are strained. G-d knows how hard it can be, but He wouldn’t ask it of us if it couldn’t be done. For this reason, the Torah promises rich spiritual rewards for the performance of this mitzvah, as per Exodus 20:11, “Honor your father and mother so that your days may be long upon the land that Hashem your God gives to you.”
I hope this helps!
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent