Honor Parents, Exercise Judgment

A clarification after last week’s column: In severe cases of parental abuse, children should not seek out a relationship with them * Dama ben Netina: Learning about honoring parents specifically from a cruel Roman army general * Respect for parents empowers children * In a case where not waking-up a father will likely cause him grief, he should be woken-up * If children do not honor their parents properly, the parents should overlook it * Children should exercise moral judgment, and not blindly obey all their parents’ orders * Do not ignore the negative behavior of parents, rather, honor their positive sides

A Painful Question

“Rabbi, words of Torah are very dear and important to me, but I was dumbfounded and extremely upset reading your previous column titled “Maintain a Relationship with Your Divorced Father”. I am terribly worried about the shock and damage it may cause to the youth and adults the article refers to. Therefore, I take the liberty of commenting.

Unfortunately, our family underwent a very difficult experience of divorce. The father of a young family mentally abused his wife and little children, abandoned the family, and fled. He never paid alimony; on the contrary, he wasted money and left behind debts, causing his wife and children to be subjected to long periods of harassment by creditors, day and night. He is a violent and dangerous person.

The children suffered greatly from the disgrace their father caused, and as a result, received prolonged and expensive psychological treatments for their rehabilitation. The Rabbinical Court that dealt with the matter condemned the father’s behavior as well, and imposed a harsh ban upon him, his parents, and other family members for cooperating with him.

Now I wonder: Is a newspaper that is open to all readers the appropriate platform for publicizing an article that children may read? Is this meant to be a public call to parents of children, and the children themselves, who worked so hard to break free from their mental stress? Can these hurt children, who have suffered so much, ease their mother’s grief by complying with the halachic decision and honoring their abusive and abandoning father? Isn’t this tantamount to abuse of the devoted mother, who is liable to be crushed in view of this? Isn’t there a danger that the children’s rehabilitation, obtained by indescribably hard work and a great deal of money, will go down the drain completely?

If it is obligated by halakha, including children taking the initiative to make contact with the father, then it seems to me that the rabbi of the family or the community should handle the matter sensitively, behind closed doors, and not in public.

I hope I was not too blunt or inappropriate, and apologize in advance if I was. With all due respect and appreciation.”

Answer: Treat an Evil Person as Such

Thank you very much for your moving letter. Obviously there are exceptional and shocking cases such you experienced. The situation I was referring to was less extreme, as described precisely in the question.

Moreover, in the case you spoke of, the Torah approach towards the situation was fully reflected in the exceptionally severe judgment, namely, the ‘herem‘ (ban) placed on the sinful father and his supporting family. Consequently, his children should also treat him as an evil person, until he atones for his misdeeds, and repents to the best of his ability.

Furthermore, if a relationship with the father causes emotional damage requiring psychological treatment, contact with him should be avoided until the children are emotionally stronger and out of such danger.

Clarifying the Mitzvah of Honoring Parents

I received many other responses to last week’s column. The majority of them were painful and identified with the estranged fathers, while some were from hurt women, angry at their divorced husbands.

In any case, from the various responses I realized the extreme importance to further clarify the mitzvah of honoring parents, as written in the Torah: “Honor your father and mother. You will then live long on the land that God your Lord is giving you” (Exodus 20:12).

The Acts of Dama ben Netina

The Jerusalem Talmud (Peah 1:1) relates a story about Dama ben Netina, which holds many deep and hidden meanings. The importance of story can be learned from the fact that it also appears in the Babylonian Talmud (Kiddushin 31a) with a few changes. I will recount the translation of the story from the Jerusalem Talmud with some commentary:

“Rabbi Eliezer was asked by his students: ‘How far should one go in honoring his father and mother?’ He replied: ‘You are asking me? Go and ask Dama ben Netina!  Dama ben Netina was a Roman army general. Once, his mother hit him in the face with her sandal in the presence of all his soldiers, and he was silent, and did not react. Moreover, when her sandal with which she was hitting him fell from her hand, he picked it up and handed it back to her, so she would not be upset having to bend over to pick it up.”

“Rabbi Hezekiah said: He was gentile who lived in Ashkelon and was the head of the army there. He refrained from sitting on the same rock his father had previously sat on. When his father died, he made an idol out of the rock, due to the great respect he had for his father.”

“It happened once that one of the precious stones, the Jasper stone, representing the tribe of Binyamin, fell out of the High Priest’s breastplate, and was lost. Seeking a replacement, the Sages were referred to a certain Dama ben Netina who purportedly had the exact jewel they required in his possession. They offered him one hundred dinar, and Dama accepted their offer. When he went to fetch the jewel he discovered that he could not access it without waking his father. Some say that the key to open the chest of precious jewels was between his fingers, while others say his father’s foot was resting on the chest. Not wanting to wake his father, he returned and informed his clients that he could not provide them with the item they sought. Assuming that he was trying to renegotiate the price, they increased their offer to 200 dinar, and when he refused, they continued raising their offer until they reached a sum of 1,000 dinar. Since Dama still refused, they left. When his father finally woke up, he brought them the jewel, and they were still willing to pay him their final offer of 1,000 dinar. Dama, however, was only willing to accept their initial offer of one hundred, saying: “What? Do you think that I would sell the honor of my father for mere coins? I refuse to derive any tangible benefit from the honor of my father!” What heavenly reward did God repay Dama for such meritorious behavior? Rabbi Yossi ben Rabbi Bun said: On that very night a pure red heifer (essential for attaining ritual purity) was born to Dama’s cow, and so the Jews purchased this extremely rare item from him for a small fortune.”

Who was Dama ben Netina?

Dama ben Netina was the “patēr boulēs” – or general of the Roman army who ruled in Ashkelon. In other words, he was a strong and authoritative man, prepared to act brutally against any foe, as fitting Roman soldiers and rulers. Chances are, he had ordered the crucifixion of those who rebelled against Rome, in other words, to nail them alive to a tree so they would slowly bleed to death in agony for hours, and sometimes days, for all to see, so they too would realize what would happen to them if they rebelled. Others who violated orders were sold as slaves. Nevertheless, towards his parents, he acted with enormous honor and awe.

Presumably, if our Sages used him as an example, this implies he acted somewhat mercifully, but as a general in the Roman army, it is unimaginable that he did not behave callously and brutally, including executing people. Seemingly, one could ask: Why did our Sages chose to teach us about honoring parents from a non-Jew? The Maharal from Prague, (Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel 1520-1609) in his book ‘Tiferet Yisrael’ says that it comes to teach us that this commandment is common-sense. Fulfilling it is logical, and therefore, non-Jews can also understand its value.

Superficially, it seems that one who respects his parents minimizes and weakens his own standing, but in truth, we learned from this story that respect for parents actually gives a son power, for his parents are his roots, and when he respects them, he is in effect strengthening his own roots, and thereby empowering himself. Consequently, it’s no coincidence that specifically an army general honored his parents to such a great extent, for this strengthens his leadership, and affords him a moral basis. Thus, he merited respect and obedience, by force and morality alike.

A Mother Who Humiliates Her Son

When Dama ben Netina permitted his mother to hit him with her sandal, he actually empowered himself. He made it clear to himself and the officers under his command that despite his mother possibly having gone mad, her honor and standing remained. Her dignity was not dependent on her own personal level, but was absolute; she provided him life, and there is nothing greater and more sacred than that. The more honor bestowed upon her, the greater his esteem.

The Reward for Honoring Parents

It is worthwhile adding that according to halakha, when it is certain that a sleeping father will regret the fact that his son did not wake him up, and thus, he lost money, the son is required to wake him up, for this is what his father would want done (Sefer Hasidim 337; Be’er Heitev, Y.D. 249:16). However, Dama ben Netina honored his father to such an extent, that he didn’t even imagine considering doing so. And since he was so meticulous in honoring his father, the Heavens desired to increase his profits, and our Sages agreed to pay him ten times more for the Jasper stone that was in his possession, for honoring parents is one of the mitzvoth whose reward is received in this world. However, his father’s honor was so important to him, he even refused to accept any profit from it, thus opening himself to earnings way beyond all normal profits, and his cow gave birth to a red heifer, whose value was way higher.

Warning to Parents

The halakha was codified in the Shulchan Aruch: “It is forbidden for parents to be overly demanding of their children and to be scrupulous in demanding respect, as doing so will cause the children to not be able to adhere to all that is demanded of them and thus lead them to transgress the mitzvah of honoring parents. Rather, a parent should be ‘mochel‘ (forgive and forgo) on their ‘kavod’ (honor) and pretend to not see every infraction, for the halakha is that “parents may absolve a child of their duty to honor them” (Y.D. 240:19). If they do not forgo, the child will be punished because of them, and what good parent wants their children to be punished due to them?

Exercising Judgement

In contrast to Dama ben Netina’s absolute honor for his parents, to the point idolatry, according to the Torah it is forbidden to treat parents as idols. Therefore, if parents command their children to transgress the Torah, it is forbidden to listen to them (Yevamot 5b; Baba Metzia 32a). Thus, we see that children must exercise moral judgment. Not only that, but in his book ‘Shaarei Teshuva’ Rabbeinu Yona wrote that a person must even confess for the sins of his forefathers, as the Torah says: “They will then confess their sins and the sins of their fathers” (Leviticus 26:40). Otherwise, there is concern a person will continue in the ways of his forefathers, and be punished for them as well. In other words, a child must recognize the shortcomings of his parents.

Thus, honoring parents does not obligate a son or daughter to think that everything their parents say and do is justified; rather, they should treat them honorably and with awe, judge them favorably, look at the positive aspects of their personalities, and admire them.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting, informative, and thought-provoking articles by Rabbi Melamed can be found at:

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