From Parsha to Halakha Chayei Sara – When Kibbud Horim hurts
“Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Chevron, in the Land of Canaan; Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and to cry for her.” (Bereishit 23:1) Where was Yitzchak? The Torah doesn’t mention him mourning Sarah or participating in her burial. He’s also absent from the arrangements to find him a wife. The midrashim point out that the Torah also does not mention him returning from the akeida with Avraham. “Avraham returned to his servants, and they got up and went together to Be’er Sheva…” On the way to the akeida Avraham and Yitzchak walked together, on the way home Avraham walks with his servants and Yitzchak is MIA.
The midrash offers two directions to explain his whereabouts after the akeida. Bereishit Rabba (56) states that Avraham sent him to learn Torah at the yeshiva of Shem and Ever. Other sources relate that it took Yitzchak 3 years to come down from Mount Moriah; one tradition claims he was admitted to Gan Eden or heaven to heal, either physically or mentally.
The two approaches are vastly different. The former has Yitzchak obeying his father’s wishes to study Torah. The latter has a traumatized and isolated Yitzchak– perhaps in the comfort of a miraculous spiritual realm, perhaps unable to move on from the bare mountain top where his father tied him up and raised a knife over him – paralyzed for years until Rivka arrives to offer him a new possibility of love and comfort.
The Torah gives no indication that Yitzchak was an unwilling participant, it even hints that Yitzchak was of one mind with Avraham (Rashi 22:8). And yet after the akeida they are not seen together until Yitzchak joins Yishmael, another estranged son, to bury their father. Both the written and oral Torahs hint at the possibility of trauma and estrangement so great that Yitzchak is not present for his mother’s funeral.
Yitzchak’s son Yaakov also leaves his parents and is seemingly absent from his mother’s death and burial. In this case tradition criticizes him, attributing his tortuous 22-year separation from Yosef to these 22 years of neglect. Is it possible Yitzchak’s absence is not criticized because it is understood, and possibly justified? Are there times halakha exempts a child from their duties to their parents?
To explore this question, we must first understand a child’s halakhic responsibilities to the parent. Then we will explore some cases when a child is exempt, or a parent is told to forgo their honor. This is not an exhaustive survey of the sources and will not provide a definitive halakhic ruling. It is an introduction to the halakhic issues involved in complicated and traumatic parent-child relationships that may justify Yitzchak’s lengthy absence and offer insight into other complicated cases of kibbud horim, when a child’s mental or physical health is markedly adversely affected if they fulfill the mitzvah.
A child’s obligations to their parents and to God
The Torah commands children to honor (kavod) and revere/fear (yira) their parents and prohibits striking and cursing them. The gemara in Kiddushin (30b) notes that the Torah makes parallel demands in our relationship with our Creator – we are commanded to honor and revere God, and prohibited from cursing God. This makes sense as there are three partners responsible for a person’s existence – God, the mother, and the father.
The gemara continues to explore our duties to our parents and explains the difference between honoring and revering. Yira is fulfilled when one does not stand or sit in the parent’s place, contradict their statements, or choose sides when the parent is in an argument. Kavod is fulfilled by giving the parent food, drink, clothing and shelter, accompanying the parent when they go out, and in general serving them.
Nevertheless, there are limits. The midrash explains that the verse “A man must revere his mother and father and keep My Shabbatot, I am the Lord your God” juxtaposes obeying parents Shabbat observance to teach us that a child should not obey if a parent orders them to break Shabbat, or any other commandment; God’s will supersedes that of the parents since the parent is also obligated to obey God’s commands. (Yevamot 5b)
How far must a person go?
To illustrate the extent of the mitzvah of kibbud horim the gemara in Kiddushin (31a) brings two stories about the gentile Dama ben Netina. In the first he lost out on a fortune because he would not wake his father. Then Rav Dimi relates:
“Once when [Dama ben Netina] was wearing a cloak of gold, sitting among the nobles of Rome, his mother came and ripped it from him and hit him on the head and spit on him and he did not embarrass her.”
The gemara also rules that even if a parent throws one’s wallet into the sea, they may not yell at them. (31b) Shulchan Aruch rules in accordance with this story that one may not embarrass their parents even under such extreme circumstances. (Yoreh Deah 240) Rambam explains that refraining from a harsh response fulfills the mitzvah of yirat horim; one must control their response just as one would have to silently endure abuse from a king who they feared.
Must one really endure such abuse from a parent?
Many sages read the story differently, quoting the version in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Peah 1) or a similar story in Devarim Rabba (1:15) that both explain that Dama ben Netina’s mother was non compos mentis at the time. The former version has Dama ben Netina returning the shoe she hit him with so she was not embarrassed; the latter has him responding with nothing more than “enough mother” as she hits him.
Reading these stories about a parent who is senile is very different than reading them about a mentally competent parent who is sadistically abusive. The gemara in Kiddushin (32a) relays another story about a senile parent, with a very different response. Rav Asi obeyed his mother’s extravagant demands until she told him she wanted a husband as handsome as him. At that point he left for the Land of Israel. Then he heard that she was following him so he asked Rabbi Yochanan if he could go to greet her. Rabbi Yochanan’s answers are unclear, and he delayed leaving. When he finally went to meet her, he was told she passed away and he was meeting her coffin. The story ends with his statement “If I had known I wouldn’t have left.”
Tosafot Ri HaZaken explains that he realized she was senile and that he would not be able to fulfill the Divine commandment to honor her, so he left. The rest of the story is often understood as Rav Asi questioning if honoring his mother supersedes the prohibition to leave Israel, and ultimately decides it does. Yet once he realizes she has died he concludes that he should not have left Israel to meet her coffin and regrets going.
Some see Rav Asi as an example. He tried to do what his mother wanted and when he could not, he left his mother for a mitzvah – to learn Torah in Israel. Rambam rules that if a parent is not mentally capable one should first try to care for them themselves, but if they cannot appropriately care for the parent they can outsource the care, as many sages claim Rav Asi did before he left Babylon. (Hilchot Mamrim 6:10) Radvaz explains that this is not just an option, but rather the only halakhic recourse when the child is biblically prohibited from providing the appropriate care for the parent, such as physical restraints. (see also Tzitz Eliezer 12:59)
Bach, however, notes that the story does not say she was senile, nor does it say he appointed someone else to care for her. He and many others question how a sage could abandon their senile parent, even in the care of others, since he is commanded to feed and care for her. He explains that she was making unreasonable demands he could not fulfill so he left so he would not have to disobey her. (YD 240) While Bach does not permit one to abandon a senile parent, he indicates that one may distance themselves from a mentally competent parent who makes unreasonable demands.
Our sages understand how difficult kibbud horim can be on a child and impose boundaries on parental behavior. The gemara relates that one may not strike their grown son, as it is a stumbling block before the blind – the child is likely to break a severe Torah commandment by lashing out physically or verbally, both grave sins. (Moed Katan 17a) Rambam extends this idea and states that a parent should not overburden their child as it creates an obstacle to properly honoring their parents. Rather a parent should forgo their honor when necessary and ignore any affronts. Our sages recognize that parental behavior can trigger a child and make it difficult to fulfill their duty. Relationships are complicated and there are moments of strife, but in a healthy relationship there is balance – the child wants to fulfill the mitzvah to honor their parent and the parent wants the child to succeed.
Up until this point we have seen the sages explore the halakhic nuances of cases when the child may be unable to fulfill their duty to their parent and the Torah. Jewish tradition also recognizes that the parent child relationship can deeply affect the child’s mental health. Massechet Smachot (Chapter 2) brings a tragic story of a child who was so scared of his father’s threat of a later punishment that he threw himself into a pit and died, leading the rabbis to rule that a parent may not tell a child they will punish them later, but should either punish the child immediately or keep silent. Torah Temima compares this to the previous commandment; in both cases there is a lifesaving element (pikuach nefesh).
There is no question that in such extreme cases where involvement with a parent can trigger suicidal thoughts, depression, or anxiety a child is exempt from the laws of kavod and yira. Pikuach nefesh supersedes almost all Torah commandments. But what about in less extreme cases?
Actions, thoughts, or feelings?
Rambam and Shulchan Aruch rule that one is obligated to respect a parent that is “evil”. Rema brings Tur and Mordechai that says one is exempt unless the parent has repented. (YD 240:18)
The words “honor” and “revere” are generally associated with emotions, but until this point the halakhic fulfillment of the mitzvah has been limited to actions. Nevertheless, Sefer Chareidim includes these commandments in the section of “Mitzvot that are dependent on the heart”, along with the mitzvot of kavod and yira of God. Similarly, he rules that one may not disparage a parent in their heart. (Section 35)
Chayei Adam (207) rules that a person must revere their parents as though they were nobles. But if this is not true, how could the Torah demand someone to believe a lie? Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg answers that no matter what the parent has done, without them the child would not exist. From the child’s point of view, they granted him life and there is nothing more important. A child must find a way to reconcile their feelings about their parent’s transgressions with this reality.
Some contemporary halakhic authorities question whether therapy that explores the negative effects a parent may have had on a child is allowed. Rav Elyashiv related that Rav Zilberstein prohibited therapists from bringing up the parent’s part in their problems, since one may not heal themselves with something prohibited.
Others view therapy as a tool to gain a broader perspective and take responsibility for one’s actions. Rav Nachum Rabinovich allows a child to disparage their abusive parent in therapy if the negative feelings are shared as part of a healing process. He cautions that one should remember that these feelings may be subjective or disproportionate to the parent’s actions. When therapy is healing it helps a person gain perspective, appreciate the positive aspects of the relationship and reconcile with the negative and painful. Rav Aviner rules that one is permitted to feel anger toward their parents; they are only prohibited from displaying it, so they may let it out in therapy if the therapist thinks it would be healing. The expression of that anger can help alleviate it so they can move past it. He also rules that a child may be separated from their parent if it is objectively clear this is necessary for them to heal. (Iturei Cohanim 85)
Rav Eliezer Melamed warns against therapy that can damage the respect a person feels toward their parent and is against therapy that seeks to blame the parent for their child’s problems. Nevertheless, he brings the Sha’arei Teshuva (1:40) that says a child must also confess the sins of their parents to explain that it is important to understand how one’s parents influence their own behavior, so that they can break negative cycles and start fresh. A person is not meant to delude themselves, they must confront reality, which includes their roots. The good and the bad are part of who we are today. For better and for worse we are connected to our parents, and we must learn how to live with that connection.
Rav Melamed also makes an important distinction between abusive parents and generally fine parents who may have been too strict with their discipline. A caring parent who made mistakes with discipline must still be respected; sadistic behavior physically and mentally harms a child and it must be stopped. While a child should not endure any more abuse Rav Melamed encourages the child to eventually work to try to understand the roots of the parent’s abusive behavior – perhaps their own trauma or some illness. This compassion can help assimilate the good and the bad and help the child do better with their own children.
Above we saw that Rema rules that a child must not react harshly after their parent harms them, but a child is allowed to try to stop the parent to avoid such an outcome. Similarly, we saw Rav Asi move to a different country to avoid his obligations to his mother – perhaps because her demands were cruelly overbearing, or perhaps because her senility made it impossible for him to fulfill his halakhic duties. Either way, it seems that there is a place in halakha for protecting oneself from an abusive parent or avoiding traumatic interactions.
We may also return to the original and most clear-cut exemption – if a parent demands a child transgress a commandment the child is not allowed to obey. Many sages hold that we are commanded to safeguard our health and avoid things that adversely affect it. Until recently these discussions were limited to physical health or clear concerns about mental health were limited to cases when there is a clear and present danger of suicide. But the discussion is changing as we understand more about the complicated world of mental health. This may include evolving approaches to complicated cases of kibbud horim.
For example, caring for elderly or sick parents can take a tremendous toll on a person. Halakhically, a person is not obligated to bear the financial burden of the parent’s care. A child is not obligated to beg to provide for the parent’s care. What about when such care leaves a person physically and emotionally impoverished?
If we return to the case of Rav Asi, Maharshal does not explain why he abandoned his mother or if it was halakhically permissible. Yet he understands Rav Asi’s expression of regret at the end of the story as lamenting his decision to leave Babylon, worrying that his departure or her journey led to her death. This haunting explanation illustrates the complexity of the difficult decisions one may face when trying to navigate our obligations to our parents. The tension between one’s obligations to honor and serve their parents and to honor and care for ourselves can put us in impossible situations. In this case consulting with halakhic authorities can help us navigate these difficult times.
From halakha to the parsha
Halakhic approaches rarely allow a child to disobey a parent directly, but indicate that there are times a child is permitted to avoid contact with a parent to protect themselves. A child must recognize the good a parent has done for them; even if a parent is evil they must learn to appreciate that they owe their life to their parents. Nevertheless, a child is not obligated to endanger themselves to serve their parent.
The Torah does not show us any interactions between Avraham and Yitzchak after the akeida. What happened to Yitzchak was Divinely decreed, it was God’s will. There is no indication Yitzchak did not accept this. But we also do not see him able to overcome the trauma of his father tying him down and holding a knife above him. Nevertheless, he does not abdicate his responsibility to honor his father. The midrash relates that he arranged his father’s marriage to Ketura, who was Hagar. Perhaps this can serve as an example of a child whose mental health precludes them from directly caring for their parent, but honors their parent by finding an alternative form of care. Ultimately, Yitzchak is able to overcome his trauma to honor his father in his death, joining with Yishmael to bury Avraham.