On Difficult Parents & Difficult Parents in Law

Two very important obligations – the obligations about honoring parents and parents-in-law - are spelled out in our parsha.

One of those obligations - the one to honor parents - appears in the aseres ha-dibros. It’s where we read: “respect your father and mother.”[1]

The other obligation - the one to honor parents-in-law[2] - appears earlier in the parsha. That’s where we read about Yisro’s, Moshe’s father-in-law’s, arrival at Moshe’s desert encampment. Upon that arrival, Moshe humbled himself and: “went out to greet his father-in-law …and bowed to him.”[3]

“Going out” and “bowing” could have diminished Moshe’s standing in the community’s eyes. And leaders like Moshe shouldn’t let themselves be diminished.

Moshe, nevertheless, “went out” and “bowed.” Why? Because kibbud av va-em - even if it diminished Moshe - obligated that “bowing.” And because Yisro wasn’t Moshe’s father but, rather, Moshe’s father-in-law, Moshe’s act teaches us that: “one must show honor to his father-in-law.”[4]

Our parsha doesn’t just spell out kibbud av va-em’s obligations. It also spells out – and this is something that the Torah rarely does - the great reward that lies in store for those who keep this mitzva: “Respect your father and mother, so that your days should be lengthened.”[5]

Kibbud av va-em, then, isn’t just a mitzva. It’s an exceptionally important mitzva.

And yet, not all “frum” people are careful about kibbud av va-em. Some “frum” people are actually quite derelict – and, even, sometimes downright disrespectful towards their parents and their parents-in-law.

That’s partly because not all “frum” people are “frum” enough for kibbud av va-em. Sure, those people observe kashrus, Shabbos and many other mitzvos. They may be doing that, though, only because those mitzvos – at least on some level – only require that we establish food and work boundaries. Once those boundaries are established, we can carry on with our lives. Such simple boundaries don’t, though, begin to address kibbud av va-em’s requirements to constantly reassess every conversation and every emotional reaction. Kibbud av va-em is, then, an exceptionally demanding mitzva. Which may explain why people who address other mitzvos can fail at kibbud av va-em.

It's also harder to provide kibbud av va-em to certain parents. Some parents will criticize even the most valiant efforts at kibbud av va-em. Their criticisms can dissuade children from even attempting kibbud av va-em. Some parents abused their children. Those children, who still carry resentments from their childhoods, may find it difficult to rise above those resentments. Some parents have terrible characters or have emotional or mental health issues. These flaws and issues can make kibbud av va-em very difficult. This may be another reason as to why people who address other mitzvos can fail at kibbud av va-em.

Yes, kibbud av va-em can be hugely difficult. Which may be why our rabbanim shared the following inspiring story: “Rav Dimi was dressed in gold clothing and was sitting among the nobles of Rome. Rav Dimi's mother entered, ripped off his clothing, hit him on the head and spat in his face…but Rav Dimi did not shame his mother.” [6]

It must have been hugely difficult for Rav Dimi to maintain his composure and to perform kibbud av va-em. But he did it nonetheless. And by doing that, Rav Dimi showed us that we can perform kibbud av va-em, even in very difficult situations.

How, though, do we develop a Rav Dimi-like attitude?

Perhaps by keeping some of the following pointers in mind.

Firstly, we should remember that we keep all mitzvos - and certainly the aseres ha-dibros - even when mitzvos are difficult to keep. We kept Shabbos when six-day workweeks made keeping Shabbos almost impossible. And we send our children to yeshiva when tuition is prohibitive. Why, then, wouldn’t we keep kibbud av va-em – a mitzvah and one of the aseres ha-dibros - even when it’s difficult?

Secondly, we must always recall the following Yiddish aphorism: “a young tree bends.” That aphorism - by noting that younger, less-developed trees flex more than older, developed trees - reminds us that younger, less developed people flex more easily than their older parents. That may encourage tractable young people to accommodate their less tractable parents.

We should also recall that not accommodating parents and parents-in-law will create conflicts with them. Do we want conflicts with our parents and our parents-in-law? And that recollection should be buttressed by the realization that conflict won’t remain within the parental arena. It will spread – and bring acrimony - to our other relationships. Those with our siblings. Our spouses. And with others. Do we want to damage all those relationships?

Finally, we must recognize that children repeat parental behavior. Parents who disrespect their own parents, will, generally, be disrespected by their children in turn. Do we want our children to disrespect us?

No, I’m claiming that these pointers make kibbud av va-em easy or that all family issues are resolvable.

I am only noting that abrogating kibbud av va-em violates halacha and brings tremendous hurt to everyone involved.

I am also noting that it’s usually possible to perform some type of kibbud av va-em - even in Rav Dimi-like situations.

Will our efforts at kibbud av va-em achieve complete success?

Perhaps not.

But our lack of effort will, quite likely, achieve complete failure.

And then we’ll be failing at one of life’s most important tasks.

Do we want to fail at one of life’s most important tasks?

[1] Shemos 20:12

[2] Shulchan Aruch, Yorah Deah 240:24

[3] Shemos 18:7

[4] Mechilta Ad loc.

[5] Shemos 20:12

[6] Kiddushin 31a

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