The Jewish Ethicist: Taking the Fifth (Commandment)
Do I have to honor my father even after he cheated me?
Q. Recently my father asked me to sign some "routine family documents." Afterwards I discovered that he tricked me into transferring him some very valuable assets! I find it hard to respect him now. Do I still have to honor him? BL
A. Most of us recall that honoring parents is one of the Ten Commandments, but in today's fragmented society few people have a clear idea exactly what the limits of this honor are.
Part of the problem is that people aren't aware of the great reward the Torah promises to those who fulfill this obligation. If they recalled that the Torah states, "Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commands you; so that your days will be long and it will be well for you" (Deuteronomy 5:15), then they would probably be more motivated to carry out this commandment.
Behind this commandment is a profound foundation of Jewish belief. The Talmud tells us that the awe of parents is likened to that of God Himself, since they are His partners in creating the child. Our father and mother are not merely a "means to an end" to our formation; they are essential participants in the awesome physical and spiritual process of creating a new human being in the image of the Creator.
And since the gratitude we owe our parents is personal, and not monetary, likewise the honor we owe them is personal. A child is obligated to help his or her parents with personal needs, not financial ones. If a parent asks even a grown child to help with the grocery shopping, the child should obey; but the commandment of honoring parents doesn't obligate the son or daughter to pay the bill. (Of course if the parent is needy the child should do everything in his or her power to aid them financially as well.)
But sometimes there are important obstacles to honoring parents. In a famous story from the Talmud, we learn about a situation similar to yours:
"Whenever Rabbi Tarfon's mother wanted to go to bed, he would bend over and let her climb over him; and when she would get down, he would let her step down on him. When he told the other scholars [of the great mitzvah he merited to perform], they told him, 'You still haven't reached even half the ultimate level of honor. Has your mother ever taken a wallet of money and thrown it away in front of you, without you insulting her?'"
The Shulchan Aruch, the authoritative code of Jewish law, viewed this as a legal standard, not merely an ethical one. We find there: "How much should a person have awe of his parents? Even if he was wearing formal clothes and sitting at the head of an assembly, and his father and mother came and tore his clothes, beat him, and spit at him, he may not insult them but rather should remain quiet, and be in awe of the King of kings who commanded him thus. . . How much should he honor his father and mother? Even if they took his wallet full of money and threw it into the sea, he should not insult them nor irritate them nor get angry at them, rather he should accept the dictate of Scripture and remain quiet."
We see two things: First of all, we see that the trial you face, where a parent shows contempt for the child and takes his or her money, is considered the most difficult ordeal of all in upholding honor of parents. Second of all, we see that even in this case the child is not allowed to insult the parent.
However, we learn from this same chapter of the Shulchan Aruch that the child is allowed to sue the parent for the money. Having a monetary disagreement with someone doesn't mean that you don't respect them, and parents are no exception.
It follows that you must continue to relate to your father with respect and honor. And you deserve a great spiritual and material reward for doing so. But you are allowed to try and recover your loss through legitimate legal proceedings.
SOURCES: Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 30b, 31b; Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 240:3, 8.
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