What is our obligation to take care of our parents? What exactly is required of us? When does that obligation begin and how long does it last? Is our obligation cancelled if a parent is cruel or behaves in ways that are immoral or unethical toward us or others? How should the obligation to care for parents be shared by siblings?
These questions hardly form a complete list. We could add many more questions that reflect our own curiosity and our own experience in relating to elderly parents. Of course, the Torah addresses this sensitive subject.
“Honor your father and mother that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God gives you.”
“You shall revere every man his mother and his father.”
The first of these two passages is the fifth commandment, and includes the reference to making our days “long upon the land” as a reward for honoring our parents. Either the Torah means to say that we will actually live longer in exchange for honoring our parents, or that our years will only seem fuller and more meaningful for having cared for our parents. Whichever interpretation is more compelling, we are incentivized not to ignore our parents’ needs.
The verse in Leviticus uses a different word- revere- to describe our obligation to care for our parents. This change in language prompts a Talmudic discussion about the difference between “honor” and “revere.” We are told that we uphold the commandment to revere or “fear” our parents by showing respect, and we honor our parents by taking care of their material needs.
Our Rabbis taught: What is fear and what is honor? Fear means that the son must neither stand in his father’s place nor sit in his place, nor contradict his words, or tip the scales against him. Honor means that he must give him food and drink, clothe and cover him, lead him in and out.
-Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 31b
The Talmud reinforces the notion that we are obligated to care for our parents and adds a dimension of communal accountability.
Rabbi Yannai and Rabbi Yonatan were sitting and a man came and kissed Rabbi Yonatan’s feet. Said Rabbi Yannai to Rabbi Yonatan: “Why does he feel this way about you?” What have you done for him?” He answered, “Once he complained to me that his son was not supporting him and I told him to go and say so publicly in the town square and shame him.” Rabbi Yannai said, “Why did you not force the son to support the father?” Rabbi Yonatan said, “May one force a son to support his father?” Said Rabbi Yannai, “You still don’t know this?” They said that Rabbi Yonatan went and established it as a rule in Rabbi Yannai’s name.
-Talmud Yerushalmi Kiddushin 1:7
Even this week’s Torah portion, Noah, contains the idea of the obligation to honor our parents. Near the end of the portion we read about the generational transition from Noah to Abraham. After listing the ten generations between them, the portion concludes by describing the first part of Abraham’s journey from Ur of the Chaldeans to Canaan, a journey he makes with his father Terach, his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot. The family makes it as far as Haran, where Terach stays. From Haran, Abraham, Sarah and Lot continue on alone to Canaan, the Land of Israel that God will soon promise to Abraham’s descendants.
An unusually esoteric Torah commentary called Or Hachayim, written by an 18th century scholar named Rabbi Chayim ibn Attar (Morocco, Italy and Israel) raises an interesting question, one that most people would not think to ask. How could Abraham leave his elderly father behind in Haran and move to another country? Wasn’t he worried about his health and welfare? If, as the Midrash asserts, Abraham was fully versed in the laws of the Torah even before they were brought down from Mt. Sinai centuries after his time on earth, why didn’t he obey the commandment to honor one’s parents?
The answer given in the Or Hachayim seems to let Abraham “off the hook” from the obligation to take care of his father. First Chayim ibn Attar says that God told him to leave Haran and venture on to Canaan in fulfillment of the Divine command to establish the nation of Israel. Thus, we might conclude that Abraham wanted to stay but God assured him that his father would be cared for. The Or Hachayim also suggests that Terach’s long life was due to Abraham’s personal virtue and merit, thus one should not think that his departure for Canaan was an abandonment of his father.
Whatever we might think of Rabbi Attar’s commentary on Abraham and his father, what we can know for certain is that the idea of caring for one’s parent has always been a pressing and important value that is ingrained in Judaism. Whatever Abraham’s relationship may have been with his father (Rabbinic Midrashim all suggest that they had very different values), Abraham had an obligation to care for his elderly father.
We each bear that obligation, though the upholding of that obligation is a different experience for each of us. Some care for their parents with love and devotion, while others do it begrudgingly and with resentment. Others contend with bitterness between siblings as to who has the greater share of responsibility, while some have a rocky relationship with their parent, making it difficult to care for them with an open heart. And still others have parents who insist that they do not wish to be cared for, perhaps they don’t want to be a burden to their children. But whether it’s difficult or easy, our religious tradition teaches that those with living parents must contend with the obligation to both revere, and honor, those who gave us life.