Honoring a Callous Father

The obligation to honor parents does not depend on the way they behave towards their children, and children must be careful to treat them according to accepted standards * A child is not obligated to turn a blind eye to the shortcomings of his parents, and recognizing their inadequacies serves a purpose, but on the other hand, one should make an effort to take a deeper look at their positive sides * If parents have exaggerated requests, one may evade them in polite ways

“Rabbi, Shalom. I am a married woman with children, and I come from an observant family blessed with many children. My parents suffered from the Holocaust in their childhood – not really experiencing it firsthand, but it stood in the background. As a child in my parents’ house, things were not simple at all. There was a lot of anger, quarrels, shouting, insults, verbal abuse, etc., on a daily basis.

Even today, after all my brothers and sisters have married and left home, and my parents are around the age of eighty, when I come to visit my parents’ house, the atmosphere between them is very unpleasant. My father speaks to my mother in a contemptuous, disrespectful, rude, vulgar, loud way, often shouting and insulting. It hurts me to visit my parents’ house.

My mother confides in me about her difficulties with my father – how inconsiderate he is, abusive, just thinking about himself, constantly demanding things of her, without thinking about her well-being and her strengths. In recent years, he sleeps in a separate room on the second floor of the house, because he claims my mother gets up a number of times at night, and it wakes him up. My mother is very scared to be left alone in her room at night – there are no bars on the windows in the room, and she is scared of burglars. Despite this, he’s comfortable in another room, and he sleeps there. She tells me all the time how much she suffers from his behavior, his screaming, and the nights she does not sleep.

My parents are not divorced, but emotionally, they are. For over twenty years they have had separate bank accounts. As a result of this relationship, we, their children, find ourselves between a rock and a hard place.

It is very difficult for me to visit my parents’ house. My father’s loud behavior and disrespectful speech hurt me. This type of behavior has lasted for many years. I find it very difficult for me to respect him. Both because of my grief for my mother, and also because of his rude and abusive behavior, in the way he criticizes me, or my children – his grandchildren. This is how he is used to talking. He does not know how to speak respectfully, and remark gently with tact.

On a daily basis, I talk only to my mother on the phone. For a long time I have been emotionally disconnected from my father. Admittedly, I talk to him when I come to visit, but I do not call him by phone, nor does he call me, and I do not feel I care about him. I feel a kind of a loathing towards him, rejection, and remote.”

The Practical Question

“And now, I will get to the question: in the last few weeks he has been extremely angry with me that I do not pick up the phone to call him, and do not take interest in him. On the other hand, it is very difficult for me to call him. It’s hard for me to do something I’m not comfortable with. I’m a frank and honest woman, and it’s hard for me to put on a show – to call and make believe I’m interested, and just pay lip service, when my heart is not with me.

As far as I’m concerned, if he removed himself from the family by not being interested in us for years, not coming to visit, speaking in an insulting way, etc. – it created remoteness. Even what my mother shares with me, in her anger at him, and in the grief he causes her, causes me to distance myself from him even more, and not want to have a relationship with him. Only when I come to visit, and I have to say hello to him, do I say hello politely.

What should I do? Should I call and put on a show as if I’m interested? I’m also afraid that if I call, in the phone call he’ll criticize me with offensive remarks and I’ll be offended, and that will ignite into a new quarrel. Or, am I better going my own way, not to call him, and speak to him only when I come to visit?

I am aware the difficult atmosphere that transpired in my parents’ house hurt me, my connection with Hashem, and my self-image, and caused me guilt and hard feelings – also towards myself, about the question of honoring parents. True, it’s a mitzvah from the Torah. But, honestly, it’s really hard for me to honor my father. I’m disgusted by his looks, his voice, his demeanor, and it’s hard for me to speak to him. At the same time, I also remember the good things he did for us. He provided for us when we were little, took us to the doctor when we were sick, etc. He worked long hours when I was a child, and his main contribution to the house was that he supported us. I would be happy to get your answer.”


I understand the difficulty, however, after all, this is the mitzvah of kibud horim (to honor parents). In general, it’s essential to know that when a father or mother are ordinary people, there is seemingly no need for a command to honor them, for indeed, any decent person understands that children should honor their parents. Therefore, the primary chiddush (novelty) in the mitzvah to honor parents is that they must be honored even when they are not worthy of it due to their bad character traits. This is what Rabbi Chaim Palagi (‘Tochachat Chaim’ on Parshat Toldot) wrote, that the primary commandment of the Torah is directed towards troublesome parents whose virtues are bad. And this is the situation you describe, and nonetheless, it is a great mitzvah for you to honor him. And what type of honor is required? As is customary in ordinary families. In other words, if your father is elderly and wants to talk on the phone, then call at least once or twice a week. However, if he asks for things that are above and beyond what is acceptable, you can politely avoid it.

Also, in phone calls, you should avoid arguments as much as possible. For the mitzvah to honor parents obligates a child not to blatantly disagree with his father or mother. And as our Sages have said, that even when a son sees his father committing a sin, although there is a mitzvah to reprove him, he should not comment in a way that might harm his honor. Rather, at the very most he should say: ‘Dad, didn’t you teach me that that is not the correct thing to do’? And if one knows his father will not listen, it is a mitzvah not to say anything.

Awareness of Parental Shortcomings

All the same, you do not have to be untrue to yourself, and it is helpful for you to be aware of the inadequacies of his character traits. Because by nature, when one is unaware of the shortcomings of his parents, he may inadvertently keep on doing them. Consequently, a person is commanded to confess the iniquity of his forefathers, as Rabbeinu Yonah wrote: “And he must mention his iniquities and the iniquities of his fathers. For he is punished for them – if he holds on to the actions of his fathers. And likewise is it written, “And they shall confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers” (Leviticus 26:40) (Shaarei Teshuva 1:40). Thus, the wording of the confession is: “But, indeed, we and our fathers have sinned. We have trespassed, we have committed iniquity, have transgressed.” In other words, along with the mitzvah to honor one’s parents, one must correct his parents’ bad habits. Likewise, our Sages also said (Sanhedrin 27b), that when a person continues in the evil deeds of his fathers, he is punished for his iniquity and the iniquity of his forefathers, as written: “He does not clear those who do not repent, but keeps in mind the sins of the fathers to their children and grandchildren” (Exodus 34: 7). But if he does not continue them, he is not punished for them, because he has corrected them.

The Mitzvah to Give the Benefit of the Doubt

With that being said, you should also judge him le’kaf zechut (favorably) as much as possible, for indeed, it is a mitzvah to judge every person le’kaf zechut (Talmud Shevuot 30a), as the Torah says: “Judge your people fairly,” and as our Sages stated: “Judge all men with the scale weighted in his favor” (Avot 1:6). In other words, to see the good in him, and to know that although he has bad sides, the good in him is the main thing. And if so towards any person, all the more so should parents be judged le’kaf zechut. For indeed, the mitzvah to honor one’s parents should be fulfilled not only in deeds, but also in thought, in awareness, as written in the book ‘Sefer Haredim,’ that one should honor his parents in his heart, but someone who honors his parents in deeds but despises them, of him it is said “cursed is he who shows disrespect for his father and mother” (Deuteronomy 27:16). Concerning this, King Solomon said: “An eye that disdains a father and despises a mother— that eye will be plucked out by wild vultures and consumed by young eagles” (Proverbs 30:17). And it once happened there was a son who provided for his mother but despised her because she married another man after the death of his father, and he was punished and died, and wild vultures plucked out his eyes (Sefer Haredim, Mitzvot Aseh HaTeluyot B’Lev, no. 35).

Relating to an Angry and Irritable Father

Thus, even someone whose parent is angry and irritable, selfish and rude, although his bad character traits should not be ignored, one must search and find the good qualities within him, for example, he worked hard, or in times of trouble was willing to help others. And as best as possible, to maximize contemplating his good sides, in order to fulfill the mitzvah of honoring in thought and heart. In addition to that, you should also try to judge his bad side’s le’kaf zechut. Maybe as a result of his difficult childhood experiences in the shadow of the Holocaust, he developed a tough character that helped him deal with the evil in the world. Or perhaps his physical and mental condition weighs on him, making him nervous and impatient, or maybe he is frustrated by talents he couldn’t fulfill and by failing to maintain the pleasant family atmosphere he wished to have in his family, but did not know how.

Fulfilling this mitzvah will help you a lot, for man’s parents are his roots, and the more good things you see in your father, the more you will be able to connect to your good roots, and with this power, strengthen your positive forces, and continue living a good life. But if you focus on the bad in your father, you’ll also intensify the negative sides in your roots, and it will be difficult for you to get rid of them.

Do Not Worry Your Mother Will be Hurt

You may think that if you treat your father with respect your mother will be hurt, and think that you do not support her enough in her claims against your father. In this matter, however, you must not take your mother’s feelings into consideration, according to the well-known halachic rule, that if one’s parent tells him to violate a Biblical or even a rabbinic prohibition, he should not listen (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 240:15). Besides that, hopefully in the long run, your mother will be pleased that you honor your father, for after all, with him she has spent most of her life, raised her children with him, and wants to sleep with him in the same room, and in spite of everything, his honor is also her honor.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.

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