Q&A – “How do I honor my parents, if I can’t respect them?”

Post by Melissa

I recently received phone call from a good friend which began “I have a question for you as a future Rebbetzin…” {woah, how does one respond to that?} The question was (paraphrased): How can I honor my mother if all we do is fight and I can’t even respect her? I could not answer the question in the moment, and as much as I wanted to refer her to one of our Rabbis, I knew there was a reason I had been asked and that I needed to really think through it and come up with a suitable response.

While there are a lot of nuances to this specific situation, the basis from which I approached it seemed worthy of sharing. The commandment is most commonly translated as “Honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12), however honor may not be the best definition of the Hebrew word kavod. In Talmudic writings kavod is also used to mean dignity and in some places, respect. So perhaps more so than honoring, which can seem very lofty, the important part is to treat them with dignity and to help uphold their dignity. This can be done, still while disagreeing.

You do not have to agree with someone to treat them with dignity. For example, though you may fight with your parent, do you use mean words and hold their past against them, or do you stick to the topic at hand and try to resolve the issue kindly? When your parent is aged and unable to do things for themselves, will you still support them and aid them in walking or shopping so that they are not made to feel additionally frail? This is upholding their dignity.

You do not have to love unconditionally, agree with everything and have a perfect relationship to uphold the commandment, I don’t think Hashem had that in mind. (Not that I profess to know so much about Hashem’s thinking, but look at the other things we are commanded at this point – Don’t kill, Keep Shabbat, No idols. These are pretty straightforward directives which are outlined as to how to follow.) It seems to me that the important thing is to recognize that these are the people who gave you life and have generally acted with your best interests in mind. They have worked to provide for you in the best way they knew how, and while that may not have always seemed the best to you, it was what they knew. So use that as the basis for your interactions, give them the benefit of the doubt, and uphold their dignity. Then someday when you have your own children (Be”H), they will do the same for you.

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5 thoughts on “Q&A – “How do I honor my parents, if I can’t respect them?”

  1. It seems that in this instance, you’re talking about a specific situation where you know that the relationship between a parent and child is not incredibly dysfunctional or traumatic. But whenever I see a blog on this commandment, I always try to make this point. So bear with me.

    I remember researching the 5th commandment and talking to rabbis and such after I spoke to a young woman who it seemed was being emotionally abused by her mother on a constant basis. Because the woman’s situation really troubled me and her, I researched it for myself.

    I have wrestled with this commandment my entire life. And after converting, I researched it for myself, wondering what the Jewish perspective was on a case like mine.

    My father was a deadbeat Dad who left my mother when I was 4 after she attacked him and hospitalized him over his latest infidelity. I ran away at 17 after enduring all kinds of torture, including death threats and attempts on my life at my mother’s hand. I haven’t spoken to her in 10 years.

    A number of my readers are survivors of child abuse (sexual and otherwise) and I ended up writing this piece, among others, addressing the 5th commandment: “Honoring My (Abusive) Parents”As you can imagine, this particular commandment gets a little bit more complicated for us than for most people.

    • Actually, in the end I had to tell the friend to speak with a professional who could give her some further advice and will send her your blog post. This was just where I started the conversation from… I think you bring up a good point, which is that we can’t accept anything blindly and every situation is different. Thank you for sharing Aliza.

      Though, I do want to add one thing – I think that even in some of the hardest situations (which both as a Social Worker and in my own life, I have seen and interacted with more than one might think), reading the word kavod as dignity, helps make the commadment more palatable.

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