CONTENTS AT A
FAMILY IS HIGHEST OF
PARENTS AND CHILDREN IN
RELATION TO EACHOTHER
TESTS OF "REAL
HALACHIC DEALING WITH
THE UNBEARABLE OR ABUSIVE PARENT
TORAH LIVING REQUIRES
GOING BEYOND THE "LETTER OF THE LAW"
In January, '81, Rabbi Avraham Kaminetsky
was flying back from Israel with his renowned father, Rav Yaakov, z'l. On the plane,
throughout the flight, Rav Avraham exhibited repeated manifestations of practical, devoted
honor to his father. He learned "daf yomi (the daily page in the standardized Talmud
learning program)" with his father, at one point he took off his father's shoes and
put on slippers, he brought his father water with which to wash, they conversed in
noticeably dignified fashion. Rav Yaakov also had a granddaughter on the flight who came
over and behaved with stunning derech eretz (manners, courteous and refined behavior).
All this while, Secretary General Meshel of
the Histadrut, was sitting across the aisle and looked on in amazement. Meshel said to Rav
Yaakov, speaking in Yiddish, "It is remarkable how the younger generation serves you
and what they do for you!"
Rav Yaakov replied, "The greatness of
the Jewish people was the standing at Mount Sinai [to receive the Torah]. My children and
grandchildren know that the older generation was closer to Sinai, so the younger
generation has derech eretz for the older. In the secular world, people believe in
Darwin's theory which stated that people originally came from the monkey. Each generation
is progressing more and more away from the monkey. Since the younger have more progress
and intelligence, why have derech eretz for the older generation? With Torah Jews, the
older generation is closer to Sinai and has more progress and intelligence, so the younger
have derech eretz for the older" [true story as told to this author by Rabbi Avraham
Two women, old friends, met after several
years. Mrs. Moskowitz had her son Akiva with her. Mrs. Bernstein hadn't seen Akiva since
he was six and she was taken by what a pleasant, warm and well-mannered mentsh he turned
out to be and said, "I'd give twenty years of my life to have a son like that!"
Mrs. Moskowitz responded, "That's exactly how I did it. I gave twenty years of my
life to have a son like that" [true story, names changed].
A woman had an elderly, infirm mother.
The mother required constant attention and the woman personally took care of her
mother on a full-time basis. In order for her to go to synagogue on Yom Kippur, she wanted
to hire a woman to stay with her mother. Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky told her, "No. The
order of prayer is derabonon [from the sages] and honoring parents is de'oraisa [from the
Torah]" [true story told to me by Rabbi Aaron Weitz of Echo Institute, Monsey, NY].
FAMILY IS HIGHEST OF
Hebrew has two words for the noun,
"teaching." "Leemud" is a teaching that is for the sake of knowing.
"Torah" is a teaching that is for the sake of doing.
The word "Torah" means
instruction. It is Hashem's means for showing us what He wants us to do and what He wants
life to be. Through obeying His Torah, we do what He commands us to do and we do not do
that which He prohibits. Through obeying His "system" of mitzvos, laws, ethics
and values; we elevate our spiritual, eternal selves; we obtain reward; and we honor Him.
But, Hashem is intangible and infinite. How
can humans, limited by being physical and finite, understand and honor Him? It seems a
Further, the Torah, to be a functional
"system," has to have a mechanism through which to implement its instruction in
our practical world. As Pirkei Avos [chapter one] says, "Study is not the essential
thing, action is."
It is through the mitzvos of honoring and
revering father and mother that parents give children the opportunity to somewhat
concretize in the physical world the concept of Hashem. Through the halachos of chinuch
(raising and training children), children give parents the opportunity to actualize the
commanded perpetuation of our people and tradition. And, parents and children together
constitute the family, which is the building block of Jewish society in each community and
generation. This gives a role and responsibility in Hashem's "system" to each
individual parent and child as well as to the family unit.
The commandments and laws incumbent upon
parents and children produce the behaviors and the atmosphere conducive to a constructive
and purposeful life and the part in the divine system that each person is to fulfill, and
to the role in the community that each person and family is to fulfill. These rules and
roles define the goals and standards by which we know when Hashem's will is satisfied. Let
us be careful to stress that it goes far beyond technical activity. The "system"
requires warmth, spirit, values, priorities, fine attitude, good-heartedness and strength
Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, in his
commentary to the Torah in Parshas Vayishlach, insightfully points out on a few occasions
(in the story of the reunion of Yaakov/Jacob and Esav) that a key difference between Esav
(who represents Western gentile values) and Yaakov (Jacob, who represents Torah values) is
that Esav represents power, militarism, materialism, politics and achievement outside the
home; while Yaakov represents the compassionate husband, father, student and teacher of
Torah, provider, nurturer. Work and politics, to Yaakov, are tools for human endeavors,
organizations are for humane and spiritual goals. To Esav, family is in the background. To
Yaakov, family is in the center, and comes first.
In Numbers, chapter 32, the tribes of
Reuven and Gad, who had abundant cattle, asked Moshe for permission to stay on the other
side of the Jordan River (which is flat land - ideal for cattle). They asked for
permission to stay outside of the land of Israel on behalf of their 1. cattle and 2.
children. The Torah tells us that Moshe's answer (after specifying that they would have to
help their brethren conquer the land of Canaan whether they enter Israel or not) was that
they could remain on the other side of the Jordan River on behalf of their 1. children and
2. cattle. Moshe reversed the order, teaching that children are the first priority and
business is not the first priority. Family is the purpose of livelihood. Only to Esav, who
characterizes the gentile in our present exile, is family incidental to work or
The family is the fundamental element of
the social order and avodas Hashem (service of G-d). To the Jew, work or business are only
means of providing responsibly for the family, never a pre-empting of it, never substitute
When the plague of darkness came upon
Egypt, "There was light in the Jewish homes" (Exodus 10:23). Light symbolizes
Torah. It was observance of Torah, even in an environment of spiritual darkness and filth
in the exile of Egypt, with subjection to gentile influence, that kept the Jewish family
in tact and its "spiritual health" invulnerable.
Bain Adom LaChavairo (interpersonal) laws,
in general, are among the most severe in the entire Torah. How we treat and effect people
is not a matter of personal discretion or preference. The Torah's rules for derech eretz,
interpersonal behavior and spiritual conduct are very strict and apply at all times. And,
the closer people are to you, the greater the impact of your behavior upon them; the more
they are dependent on you and vulnerable to you. Accordingly, the closer one is to you;
the higher the level of obligation that the Torah imposes on you.
The Torah requires never paining a widow or
orphan, and G-d becomes furious at and viciously punitive towards a perpetrator [Exodus
22:21]. Rashi says this is not limited to a widow or orphan. The reference to widow or
orphan is only as an example of someone who is weak. Therefore, the verse actually means
one may NEVER PAIN ANYONE who is DEFENSELESS, WEAK OR VULNERABLE in any way. Rambam
(Hilchos Dayos) says that this must be fulfilled by giving such weak or needy individuals
"rachmanuss yesaira (active and extraordinary compassion)."
The closer someone is to you, the more
their well-being and state of mind is impacted by your behavior. There is no greater
closeness, and therefore no greater impact of behavior, than on one's spouse and children.
Some people make the serious mistake of being angelic to outsiders while being brutal
tyrants with those closest and most vulnerable and dependent. This is a serious and costly
The closer, weaker, more dependent or more
vulnerable any person is, the higher and finer the Torah's standards and demands are upon
you; and the more it is incumbent on you to behave with love, respect, giving of self,
responsibility, patience, gentleness, self-control, appreciation, compassion, humility,
sensitivity and on-target responsiveness; with this all being consistent, pleasing,
providing emotional security and enabling others to trust your behavior.
That being the case, the relationships
between family members are serious matters, comprehensively and strictly governed by the
Torah. When considering the shortcomings and quirks of human nature and emotions, as well
as the potential and power of the human personality, we discern that G-dly instruction
brings to fruition the dynamics, interactions, atmosphere and relationships that
constitute the Jewish family and the home of Torah values and "light," and,
thereby, the honoring of Hashem - when the instruction is faithfully carried out.
PARENTS AND CHILDREN IN
RELATION TO EACHOTHER
When a child is born, he grows up seeing in
his parents towering authority, loving nurturance, differentiation between right and wrong
- all of which are metaphors to adult perceptions of Hashem. Born small, the child is
dependent upon the grown-up. The child's mind is steadily increasing in understanding of
an outer world.
The child is gradually trained for Jewish
life, for living with other people, for increasing his capacity: to give of him/herself
rather than to take, for accepting responsibility towards others rather than requiring
that others accept responsibility for him/her, for discipline, for self-control and for
It is incumbent on the parents to warmly
and gently inculcate understanding, appropriate and socialized behavior, good hashkafos
(views and values), good midos (character traits), derech eretz (civil, polite, refined
and thoughtful behavior), a healthy and developed personality, mature judgement, a healthy
and developed personality, individuality, self-esteem, drive to achieve one's potential,
love for learning and observing Torah; as well as to provide for the physical maintenance
of each child.
As the child proceeds to grow, developments
occur in the responsibilities of both the parents and the children. The needs of the child
become more sophisticated - intellectually and emotionally, in particular - and increasing
obligations come to bear on the child, back towards the parent.
When each does his part in the Torah
"system," the "whole equals more than the sum of its parts." There is
growth in dignity, love, generosity, unity, peace and spiritual level. With these
qualities, the family unit, interactions, dynamics and relationships become holier and
holier. The Jewish family actualizes its charge to be a solid building block in the
community, as well as a link in the chain of generations and Torah tradition since Mount
Sinai. But, the family unit cannot be a component of the community unit unless its
individual members are components of a close, peaceful, stable, functional and solid
family unit, whose members all fulfill the mitzvos, laws and obligations of each to the
others - in spirit as well as in practice. A unit must be composed of solid
"sub-units" for it to be a solid unit.
As the family matures, roles shift with the
passage of time. The children mature, marry and move out; acquiring obligations to their
spouse, their children and their older parents. The family structure and relationships, as
always, are dictated by - and protected against corrosion by - halacha (Torah law). The
older generation becomes increasingly dependent, and obligations to provide care
increasingly come upon the "sandwich generation" which is between its younger
children and its older parents.
TESTS OF "REAL
Real life is more complex than an idyllic
and oversimplified picture. What do we do where problematic or contradictory forces enter
into the picture? For example, while it is within the mitzva of honoring parents to feed
and clothe a parent, as well as to obey the instruction of a parent (when the instruction
constitutes no violation of Torah), what does the adult child of an elderly and somewhat
deranged parent do with the parent who demands to be left unkempt or unfed? When this
question was taken to a rabbinical authority, the rabbi said to appoint a non-family
member to feed and clothe the cantankerous, stubborn old man as gently, as thoroughly and
as respectfully as circumstances would permit.
Also, there are two vital issues of 1. what
one does for a parent and 2. the manner in which one does it. The "classic
cases" of this are brought in gemora Kidushin 31a-b. If a child feeds a gourmet meal
to a parent, but does so with a negative attitude or tone (e.g. contemptuous, nasty,
insulting, shrill or begrudging), there is more harm than good in the act and it is
punishable by Heaven. On the other hand, if a child does something unpleasant or harsh to
the parent - sincerely for the parent's good; in a gentle, loving, respectful and
comforting way; in a case where this is the kindest or most protective thing that the
child can do for the parent under prevailing circumstances; he is truly fulfilling the
mitzva to honor the parent. The child's behavior is meritorious and rewarded by Heaven.
There are actually two separate mitzvos
devolving upon children, regarding their parents: to honor and to fear. Each has its own
set of halachos (laws) and the demands which these impose upon the child are heavy and
non-compromisable. Correspondingly, the law prohibits parents from being harsh, cruel,
unreasonable, antagonistic, provoking or otherwise making it unbearable for the child to
remain in the parent's presence or to fulfill the halachos of honor and fear, or worse, to
cause the child to strike or to curse the parent. This would violate the Torah
commandment, "Do not place a stumbling block [Leviticus 19:14]" by provoking the
child into "stumbling" through sinful violation.
These laws are the will and wisdom of our
Creator Who knows the true kochos hanefesh (personality powers) of the human being. These
laws, by virtue of their existence and divine origin, teach, barring extremely aberrant or
abusive conditions, that we are capable of the necessary restraint, coping power,
self-control, discipline, inner strength and capacity to give of self to fulfill all of
them. We are not being told to shut off our feelings, but rather to muster, develop and
dominate them. Even though obeying and accommodating parents can run counter to human
feelings, we, by definition, can measure up to all of the halachos. If a parent is
difficult to tolerate, one does not have the option to have, or at least to vent upon the
parent, bad feelings, grudge, vengeance or any harsh or disrespectful response. The
halacha beckons us to grow. The restraint, practical honor and beneficence to parents
provides for our spiritual growth and benefit, as well as such practical benefit as
non-escalation of trouble that can harm the family unit. The goal is not to control or to
stifle bad feelings but is, rather, to develop the ability to not have bad feelings.
HALACHIC DEALING WITH
THE UNBEARABLE OR ABUSIVE PARENT
There can be extreme, exceptional cases
wherein the parent is genuinely dangerous or unbearable. If the child is an adult, (s)he
should (depending on the degree of abuse and harmfulness of the parent) have minimal,
neutral contact in some form of danger-free or risk-free setting (e.g. only by telephone,
by mail or in large-crowd family gatherings). If the parent is truly destructive, move a
safe distance away. By living far enough away, you avoid any violation of obligatory
behavior towards the parent(s) while protecting yourself from harm. The gemora (Kidushin
31b) tells how Rabbi Ossi's mother was unbearable, so he moved to another country and
never saw her again. This way, he would simultaneously protect himself and not do any
wrong in his behavior towards her.
There is no obligation for you or your
property to be damaged by a parent. If a parent causes damage, like any other Jew, the
parent is subject to a din Torah, conducted by qualified dayanim [G-d fearing and
knowledgeable Torah judges] for damages.
If the child is still young, honoring
parents does not preclude nor prohibit telling a competent adult about abuse or need for
help or protection. The telling is only allowable in Torah law when it is for a
"to'elless (a validating beneficial purpose)." One cannot just speak to people
to gossip, be spiteful or be vengeful. The speaking must be designed to be constructive.
There is no violation of honoring parents when telling a responsible and appropriate adult
about a harmful parent, when that adult is capable of effectively achieving an improvement
or solution (e.g. a rabbi, teacher, relative, guidance counselor, psychologist, social
worker, etc.). Telling the adult must be on condition that this adult is a person who can
reasonably be expected to effectively help, who is a yoray Shomayim [one who reveres
Heaven] and whose methods will accord with Torah. This is considered
"to'elless." There is no mitzva to be emotionally or physically maimed,
threatened or endangered by a parent. Every Jew, including a parent, is obligated to obey
the Torah and is not entitled to merely self-servingly take advantage of it. There is no
violation of lashon hora (prohibited evil speech that maligns or harms) if the person who
the child tells about parental abuse or threat can be reasonably expected to offer
practical help and if that person is a yorai Shomayim who can be trusted to behave
according to Torah.
In "real life," circumstances can
contain complicated, conflicting or troubling elements. Each individual case must be taken
as a shaalo (Jewish law question) to an orthodox, reputable and G-d fearing rabbi for
Torah instruction. These are serious matters which are not for individual discretion or
TORAH LIVING REQUIRES
GOING BEYOND THE "LETTER OF THE LAW"
The law is not enough. The Vilna Gaon
defines "chesed" (lovingkindness) as that which is beyond the letter of the law.
After all, the Torah presumes that we all must fulfill bottom-line law. But, for behavior
to come from your genuine will and feelings - instead of mechanical "rule book"
behavior that a robot could do - "you" really starts where law stops. The true
goal of the law is your going beyond the letter of the law, of your own free will choice
and with your full heart. The gemora says that the Holy Temple was destroyed because
people only did according to what the law required for one another and no more (Bava
With people in general, and with family
most particularly, a spirit of chesed, stability, security, love, respect, peace and
spirituality is of highest priority in the Torah. This comes by voluntarily and cheerfully
going beyond the letter of the law - to fulfill the spirit of the law.
Here is a profound insight to the adage of
the sages (Vayikra Raba) that "derech eretz comes before Torah." Starting from
derech eretz as a foundation that is practical, consistent and fully contributed to by all
members; with Torah providing the "light" in the Jewish home; with sensitivity,
dignity, steadiness and Yaakov Avinu's compassion and humanity; with Moshe Rabainu's
prioritizing of the family; the Jew can produce the family unit that is a building block
of our people for all generations.
Family life, when practiced from each member's heart, on a
daily basis, with the spirit and substance of the "instruction" of Torah, can be
one of the most constructive and fulfilling parts of life.