Project Genesis

Family and Relationships

The Extent of Honoring a Parent

Question: Rabbi, I need your help. I am 18 years of age and my parents are divorced. My father constantly abuses me verbally by telling me that I’m a bad son, I’ll go to hell, and be unsuccessful in life. Nevertheless, I always respect him. Currently, I am living with my mother and that bothers him even more. Things are so bad that I suffer from clinical depression due to the situation. Should I still see him, even though he attacks me so cruelly? What course of action should I take?

Answer: As great as the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents is, a person is not required to expose himself to intense suffering for them, and surely not to the serious risk of illness (mental or physical).

Maimonides (Mishnah Torah, Laws of Mamrim, chapter 6, paragraph 10) states: “Someone whose father or mother has gone mad should [nevertheless] strive to deal with them according to their wishes until [God sees fit to] bestow mercy upon them. If [however] it’s impossible for him to remain because of their extreme condition, leave them and go away, appointing others to take care of them [i.e., ensuring that their financial needs are met].

Maimonides also writes (ibid paragraph 7): “And how great is the requirement to fear [one’s parents]? Even if one is wearing fine garments and sitting [in honor] at the head of a community gathering, and his father or mother comes and tears his clothes and hits him on the head and spits into his face, do not embarrass them, but rather remain silent and feel the proper fear of the King of kings Who commanded you thus.

It seems clear to me that one must silently endure such treatment only if it unavoidably and unexpectedly “follows” a person, but that one needn’t consciously put oneself into such a situation.

I would suggest then, if things are indeed better at your mother’s home, that you should remain there. However, you might find other, painless, ways to show love and respect to your father. Perhaps you could send him regular letters that steer clear of sensitive areas, writing to him about your daily activities and your gratitude to him for all he’s done for you over the years. You might be wise to avoid closer contact, but with such letters, you needn’t break off completely.

I hope this helps, and I wish you the very best as you work to overcome the challenge that faces you.

With my best regards,

Rabbi Boruch Clinton

[Editor – See here for a related post.]

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