The modern-day lament of aging parents is often, “My children don’t call and don’t visit.” While this package of emotional detritus comes wrapped with a bow of guilt, the lament may be misstated. Perhaps the better question is, what happened to respect for parents?
The fifth commandment given to the Israelites at Sinai was to respect parents. Immediately thereafter, additional laws are stated. The penalty for striking a parent is death. The penalty for insulting a parent is death. While death seems preposterously harsh as a punishment, the basis for the prohibition is to elevate the parent-child relationship. Torah focuses our attention on how we interact with others rather than upon our individual aspirations.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z”l, in his last book “Morality”, offers his fourth chapter to this issue. Sacks understands that the foundation of a civil society is in the structure of a two-parent family. The commitment between partners is not merely a contract but a covenant. The construct of “we” instead of “I” also provides a safe and nurturing environment for children to grow up. While I may quibble with Sacks’ proscriptions on forming the ideal family unit, I agree with his thesis. Forming a healthy family is best achieved when a covenantal relationship is created, partner to partner, parent to child, and child to parent. The construct of “we” and “us” works because it engenders the interpersonal processes of caring and respect.
Respect is both an emotion and an action, wrote Tina Gilbertson in Psychology Today. From a Jewish perspective, Torah spotlights the action. Whatever one’s opinion of their parents, civility and God demand that you demonstrate respect. As a fundamental building block of society, the committed relationship between child and parent is elevated as a commandment by our tradition.
20th Century “me-ism” has shifted the question to “have my parents earned my respect?” Torah rejects that approach. Our tradition recognizes that “we” is the cornerstone of a civil society. Our dedication to others is the structure of a stable and productive family. When it comes to parents, we should not say “I will demonstrate respect as I want” but rather say “as I am able.” To be clear, I am not excusing physically abusive behavior or diagnosable psychoses by parents. But Torah doesn’t ask if your parents make you feel guilty or inadequate before demanding you respect them. By demonstrating respect through actions, we are setting an example for our own extended families, children, nieces, nephews and such.
As an adult child, I have empathy for the frustrations of adult children. We live crazy busy lives and elderly parents can be tedious or demanding or offensive. Adult children have every right to feelings that may even include disdain for the actions or beliefs espoused by parents. Yet, our tradition asks that your emotional response to parents not be the guiding principal for your relationship.
Respect may not be something you feel, but our tradition demands that respect for parents is something you must demonstrate as you are able.
Rabbi Evan J. Krame