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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

The Demands and Limits of Honoring Your Parents

by Rabbi Haggai Resnikoff (Posted on September 9, 2016)
Topics: Torah, Sefer Breishit, Vayigash

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This article is part of Torat Chovevei, a Community Learning Program led by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah with the support of the Covenant Foundation. The goal of the program is to connect communities to YCT through the medium of Torah learning. All topics discussed weave relevant contemporary issues together with Torah and non-Torah sources in monthly home-based learning groups (chaburot). These groups are guided by Rabbi Haggai Resnikoff, Rebbe and Director of Community Learning at YCT. For further information about Torat Chovevei, and how your community can get involved, please contact Rabbi Resnikoff at hresnikoff@yctorah.org.

The following sources relate to the story of Joseph in Parashat Vayigash, and compare his actions to what we know about the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents.

Ramban, Bereshit, ch. 42

יש לתמוה אחר שעמד יוסף במצרים ימים רבים והיה פקיד ונגיד בבית שר גדול במצרים, איך לא שלח כתב אחד לאביו להודיעו ולנחמו, כי מצרים קרוב לחברון כששה ימים, ואילו היה מהלך שנה היה ראוי להודיעו לכבוד אביו…
It is astonishing: after Joseph lived in Egypt for many days, and was an officer and a ruler in the house of a great Prince of Egypt, how is that he didn’t send a message to his father to tell him and to console him. For Egypt is only six days away from Hebron. And if it was a year’s journey, it would have been appropriate to tell him because of the honor of his father…

Abravanel, Bereshit, Ch. 41

למה התנכר יוסף לאחיו ודבר אתם קשות והלא היה זה לו עון פלילי בהיותו נוקם ונוטר כנחש והם אם חשבו עליו רעה א-לקים חשבה לטובה ומה לו להנקם אחרי עשרים שנה … כל שכן אביו הזקן שבע רוגז ומלא דאגות איך לא חמל עליו והרבה צער על צערו במאסר שמעון:
Why was Joseph distant with his brothers and spoke to them harshly. Behold, this was a criminal sin for him to revenge himself like a snake. And if they thought evil on him, God thought things. So why should he revenge himself after twenty years? … And even more so his aged father, filled with anger and worries. How did he not have pity on him and increased his sorrow for him by imprisoning Shimon?

Rav Yoel Bin Nun, “Separation and Unification”, Megadim 1

יוסף לא ידע בשחיטת השעיר וברמאות האחים עם אביהם כי נטרף יוסף מחשבה מעין זו אף לא עלתה בקצה דעתו! לכן, יוסף הוא התוהה במשך 13 שנה של עבדות במצרים, ועד לעלייתו  לגדולה, היכן אביו! – מדוע אין איש מחפשו?! כל נתוני הקושיה מתהפכים עתה: ארץ מצרים קרובה לארץ כנען, אביו של יוסף איש נכבד ומפורסם, בעל קשרים משפחתיים וממלכתיים מסועפים…

הייאוש הנורא מפנה מקום להשלמה שקטה עם מר גורלו. אין מנוס עוד מהמסקנה החדה כתער: האחים שכנעו את אבא! … וקול אחר זועק בלבו: הייתכן שישלים אבא עם גירוש בנו האהוב… והקול הראשון משיב: זכור איך העמיס אברהם את ישמעאל בנו עם חמת מים לנוע אל המדבר! … איך נכנע יצחק? איך הפסיד עשו האהוב?

יהודה יצא להציל את בנימין דרך השכנוע על אביו הזקן, אולי ייעתר האיש השליט-הקשוח לרחם על האב הזקן, אבל ההשגחה שלחה את יהודה למוטט את חומת טעותו של יוסף…

“ויאמר עבדך אבי אלינו
אתם ידעתם כי שנים ילדה לי אשתי.
ויצא האחד מאתי ואמר אך טרף טרף
ולא ראיתיו עד הנה.
ולקחתם גם את זה מעם פני וקרהו אסון,
והורדתם את שיבתי ברעה שאלה, ועתה …” (מ”ד, כד-ל).

יוסף איננו שומע עוד את ההמשך! גלי קור וחום מציפים אותו מגבו – “ואמר אך טרף טרף, ולא ראיתיו עד הנה …”

הנה האמת העירומה: אבא הוטעה! חשב שנטרפתי! מתאבל עלי כל הימים, בוכה וצועק! לא ויתר, לא שכח, לא נכנע – לא הושפע! …

Joseph did not know about the slaughter of the goat and the lies the brothers told their father, that Joseph was killed. This thought never occurred to him! Therefore, Joseph was the one who wondered over 13 years of slavery in Egypt, and even until his rise to power: Where is his father! Why has nobody sought after him?! All of the facts of the question are not reversed: Egypt is close to Canaan, Joseph’s father is honored and famous, and he has powerful family and government connections…

The awful despair gives way to quiet acceptance of his bitter fate. There is no escaping the conclusion, sharp as a razor: the brothers convinced Father! … And another voice cries in his mind: Is it possible that Father would compromise with the banishment of his beloved son? … And the first voice responds: Remember how Abraham loaded his son with a skin of water to wander in the desert! … Remember how Isaac gave in? How Esau, the beloved, lost out?

Judah attempted to save Benjamin by means of persuasion using his elderly father. Perhaps this tough ruler will be convinced to have mercy on the elderly father, but divine providence sent Judah to tear down the wall of Joseph’s mistake…

“And thy servant my father said unto us: Ye know that my wife bore me two sons; and the one went out from me, and I said: Surely he is torn in pieces; and I have not seen him since; and if ye take this one also from me, and harm befall him, ye will bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave…”

Joseph doesn’t hear the rest! Waves of heat and cold run flood his back. “and I said: Surely he is torn in pieces; and I have not seen him since…”

Here is the naked truth: Father was misled! He thought I was killed! He has mourned for me all these days, he cries and shouts! He didn’t give in, he didn’t forget, he didn’t surrender – he wasn’t influenced! …

Questions:

  1. According to Rav Yoel Bin Nun, Joseph never reached out to his father because he believed that his father had been convinced by his brothers to cut him out of the family. Do his anger and betrayal justify cutting his father off in exchange? Doesn’t he owe something to his father and family?

Mencius, Book 4, Part I

Mencius said, ‘Suppose the case of the whole kingdom turning in great delight to an individual to submit to him.– To regard the whole kingdom thus turning to him in great delight but as a bundle of grass;– only Shun was capable of this. He considered that if one could not get the hearts of his parents he could not be considered a man, and that if he could not get to an entire accord with his parents, he could not be considered a son.

‘By Shun’s completely fulfilling everything by which a parent could be served, Kû-sâu was brought to find delight in what was good. When Kû-sâu was brought to find that delight, the whole kingdom was transformed. When Kû-sâu was brought to find that delight, all fathers and sons in the kingdom were established in their respective duties. This is called great filial piety.’

Questions:

  1. How would Mencius have viewed Joseph’s choice? How does this compare to the Jewish conception of honoring your parents?

Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin, 31a

אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל, שאלו את ר’ אליעזר: עד היכן כיבוד אב ואם? אמר להם: צאו וראו מה עשה עובד כוכבים אחד לאביו באשקלון ודמא בן נתינה שמו, בקשו ממנו חכמים אבנים לאפוד בששים ריבוא שכר, ורב כהנא מתני: בשמונים ריבוא, והיה מפתח מונח תחת מראשותיו של אביו, ולא ציערו. לשנה האחרת נתן הקדוש ברוך הוא שכרו, שנולדה לו פרה אדומה בעדרו. נכנסו חכמי ישראל אצלו, אמר להם: יודע אני בכם, שאם אני מבקש מכם כל ממון שבעולם אתם נותנין לי, אלא אין אני מבקש מכם אלא אותו ממון שהפסדתי בשביל כבוד אבא. וא”ר חנינא: ומה מי שאינו מצווה ועושה – כך, מצווה ועושה עאכו”כ … כי אתא רב דימי אמר: פעם אחת היה לבוש סירקון של זהב והיה יושב בין גדולי רומי, ובאתה אמו וקרעתו ממנו, וטפחה לו על ראשו וירקה לו בפניו, ולא הכלימה.
Rav Yehuda said Shemuel said, “They asked Rabbi Eliezer: ‘What is the extent of Honor thy Father and Mother?’ He said to them, ‘Go out and see what one idol worshiper did for his father in Ashkelon and Dema Ben Netina is his name. The Sages wanted to buy stones for the vest of the High Priest from him for a price of six hundred thousand. And Rav Kahana taught eight hundred thousand. And the key lay under his (sleeping) father’s head and he wouldn’t bother him. The next year, the Holy Blessed One gave him his reward, for a red heifer was born in his herd. The Sages of Israel came to him. He said to them: ‘I know that whatever I would ask of you, even all the money in the world, you would give it to me. But I don’t ask anything except that money that I lost because of honoring my father.’’” Rabbi Chanina said, “If this is true of one who is not commanded and does it, how much more so of one who is commanded and does it?” When Rav Dimi arrived, he said, “Once he (Dema) was dressed in a gold and silk garment and he sat before the nobles of Rome, and his mother came and tore his garment, and struck him on his head, and spat in his face and he didn’t shame her.

Ibid., 31b

ת”ר: איזהו מורא, ואיזהו כיבוד? מורא – לא עומד במקומו, ולא יושב במקומו, ולא סותר את דבריו, ולא מכריעו; כיבוד – מאכיל ומשקה, מלביש ומכסה, מכניס ומוציא. איבעיא להו: משל מי? רב יהודה אמר: משל בן, רב נתן בר אושעיא אמר: משל אב. … מיתיבי נאמר: כבד את אביך ואת אמך, ונאמר: כבד את ה’ מהונך, מה להלן בחסרון כיס, אף כאן בחסרון כיס; ואי אמרת משל אב, מאי נפקא ליה מיניה? לביטול מלאכה … ת”ש, שאלו את ר”א: עד היכן כיבוד אב ואם? אמר להם: כדי שיטול ארנקי ויזרקנו לים בפניו, ואינו מכלימו; ואי אמרת משל אב, מאי נפקא לי’ מיניה? בראוי ליורשו; וכי הא דרבה בר רב הונא, דרב הונא קרע שיראי באנפי רבה בריה, אמר: איזול איחזי אי רתח אי לא רתח. ודלמא רתח, וקעבר אלפני עור לא תתן מכשול! דמחיל ליה ליקריה. והא קעבר משום בל תשחית! דעבד ליה בפומבייני. ודילמא משום הכי לא רתח! דעבד ליה בשעת ריתחיה.
The Sages taught: “What is awe and what is honor? Awe – one shouldn’t stand in their (parent’s) place, or sit in their place, or contradict their words, or agree with those who disagree with them. Honor – One should feed and water them, dress and cover them, bring them in and take them out.” It was asked: At whose expense? Rav Yehudah said, “At the son’s expense.” Rav Nathan bar Oshaya said, “At the parent’s expense.” … They challenged, “It says ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and it says, ‘Honor God from your wealth.’ Just as this one demands monetary loss so this one also demands monetary loss.” And if you say that it is at the parent’s expense, what do we learn from this? (Answer) that one should sacrifice their work (for the honor of their parents)…. Come and hear, they asked Rabbi Eliezer: “What is the extent of Honor they Father and Mother?” He said to them, “to the extent that they could take a purse and throw it into the sea before them and they would not shame them.” And if you say that it is at the expense of the parent, what do we learn from this? (Answer) This is money that they would have inherited. And this is like the case of … Rav Huna who tore silk garments before Rabba his son. He said, “I’ll see if he gets angry or not.” But what if he had gotten angry? Then Rav Huna would have violated “You shall not put a stumbling block before the blind”! He had declined his honor. But he was violating the prohibition on wanton destruction! He did it at the seams. Perhaps that why he didn’t get angry! He did it when he was already angry.

Questions:

  1. Based on these texts, what seems to be the extent and the limits of honoring your parents? Might there be exceptions? What important exception do we learn from the discussion of Rav Huna and his son?

Ibid., 31b

רב אסי הוה ליה ההיא אמא זקינה, אמרה לי’: בעינא תכשיטין, עבד לה. בעינא גברא, נייעין לך. בעינא גברא דשפיר כותך, שבקה ואזל לארעא דישראל. שמע דקא אזלה אבתריה, אתא לקמיה דרבי יוחנן, אמר לי’: מהו לצאת מארץ לחוצה לארץ? א”ל: אסור. לקראת אמא, מהו? א”ל: איני יודע. [אתרח] פורתא הדר אתא, אמר ליה: אסי, נתרצית לצאת? המקום יחזירך לשלום. אתא לקמיה דרבי אלעזר, א”ל: חס ושלום, דלמא מירתח רתח! א”ל: מאי אמר לך? אמר ליה: המקום יחזירך לשלום, אמר ליה: ואם איתא דרתח לא הוה מברך לך. אדהכי והכי שמע לארונא דקאתי, אמר: אי ידעי לא נפקי.
Rav Asi had an elderly mother. She said to him, “I want jewelry.” He made it for her. “
“I want a husband.”
“I’ll look for one for you.”
“I want a husband as handsome as you!”
He left her and fled to the land of Israel. He heard that she was coming after him. He want before Rabbi Yochanan. He said to him, “Is it permitted to leave Israel?” He said to him, “It is forbidden.” “What if it’s to meet my mother?” He said to him, “I don’t know.” He waited a bit and then came again. He said to him, “Asi, have you decided to go? May God bring you back in peace!” He went before Rabbi Eleazar. He said to him, “God forbid, perhaps he was angry?” He said, “What did he say to you?” He said to him, “May God bring you back in peace!” He said to him, “If he were angry, he wouldn’t have blessed you. By and by he heard that she was coming in a coffin. He said, “If I had known, I wouldn’t have left (Israel).”

Questions:

  1. What is the difference between the story of Rav Asi’s mother and Dema ben Netina’s? What might be the rule regarding how to treat a parent who is not be in their right mind?

Mencius Book 5 Part 1

Chapter 1
3. ‘The Tî [emperor] caused his own children, nine sons and two daughters, the various officers, oxen and sheep, storehouses and granaries, all to be prepared, to serve Shun amid the channelled fields. Of the scholars of the kingdom there were multitudes who flocked to him. The sovereign designed that Shun should superintend the kingdom along with him, and then to transfer it to him entirely. But because his parents were not in accord with him, he felt like a poor man who has nowhere to turn to…
5. ‘The desire of the child is towards his father and mother. When he becomes conscious of the attractions of beauty, his desire is towards young and beautiful women. When he comes to have a wife and children, his desire is towards them. When he obtains office, his desire is towards his sovereign:– if he cannot get the regard of his sovereign, he burns within. But the man of great filial piety, to the end of his life, has his desire towards his parents. In the great Shun I see the case of one whose desire at fifty year’s was towards them.’
Chapter 2.
1. Wan Chang asked Mencius, saying, ‘It is said in the Book of Poetry,
“In marrying a wife, how ought a man to proceed?
He must inform his parents.”
If the rule be indeed as here expressed, no man ought to have illustrated it so well as Shun. How was it that Shun’s marriage took place without his informing his parents?’ Mencius replied, ‘If he had informed them, he would not have been able to marry. That male and female should dwell together, is the greatest of human relations. If Shun had informed his parents, he must have made void this greatest of human relations, thereby incurring their resentment. On this account, he did not inform them!

Questions:

  1. Does Mencius put limits on the requirements for filial piety as Chazal do? How would Mencius approach the situation of Rav Asi’s mother?

Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, Tzitz Eliezer – Ramat Rachel, ch. 5

ואגב כדאי להעתיק בזה מעשה – רב שהובא בס’ חסידים שם וז”ל: מעשה באחד שחלה, בא הרופא אצלו לרפאותו, אמר לו אם תשתה מים תהיה בסכנה ואם תאכל מאכל פלוני תהיה בסכנה בנפשך, ואמר לבנו תן לי מים ואותו מאכל פלוני ואם לאו לא אמחול לך לא בעולם הזה ולא בעולם הבא, אמרו לו הקהל אל תהי חושש בדבריו עכ”ל. וזה יכול לשמש למקור בית אב בכל בכיוצא בזה.

ובני היקר המופלג בתורה שמחה בונם נ”י הסב לי בזה את תשומת לבי לדברי הברכי יוסף ביו”ד סי’ ר”מ אות י’ שכותב דאם היה אביו חולה ואמר לו שישקהו דבר שמזיקו אבל ודאי דליכא סכנה ישמע לו, ומדקדק כן מדברי הס’ חסידים הנ”ז שכתב דבמידי דסכנה לא ישמע לו, ומוכח הא אי ליכא סכנה אף שמזיקו שרי, ע”ש. ולכאורה תמוה הוראה זאת דמנין לו מקור בהלכה להתיר בכזאת שמזיקו, ומהס’ חסידים י”ל דאין ראיה לזה, דהס’ חסידים מספר מעשה שהיה, ועובדא דהוה הכי הוה שהרופאים אמרו שיש סכנה בנפשו אם יאכל מאכל פלוני, אבל באמת יש מקום לדון מזה דה”ה גם כשליכא סכנה מכיון שמיהת מזיקו…

ועולה בדעתי ליישב דברי הברכי יוסף עפ”י דברי המנחת חנוך מצוה מ”ח שכותב לחדש דגבי הכאה אם המוכה נותן רשות אין כאן עבירה כלל לא בחבירו ולא באב…

וא”כ לפי”ז הרי ישנו שפיר פנים מסבירות להוראה זאת של הברכי יוסף דכל שאין סכנה מותר לתת לו המאכל עפ”י פקודתו ובקשתו אף על פי שיזיקו דנלמד זאת במכ”ש מהיכא שמצוהו להכותו שאין לאב הנאה של כלום מזה ועוד נוחל בזיון מכך, וק”ו כשמבקש ממנו המאכל המזיק לו, שיש לו מכך הנאת החיך וגם אינו נוחל מזה שום בזיונות…

And in passing it is worth it to copy this story that is brought in Sefer Chasidim: Once there was a man who grew ill. The doctor came to heal him. He said to him, ‘If you drink water, you will be in danger. And if you eat a particular food, your life will be in danger.’ And he said to his son, ‘Give me water and that particular food and if you don’t, I will not forgive you. Not in this world and not in the next world.’ His community said to him, ‘Do not be concerned with his words.’ This could work as a source for all of these types of situations.

And my dear son, who is extraordinary in Torah, Simha Bunem turned my attention to the words of the Birkhe Yosef who writes that if his father was ill and told him that he should let him drink something that would injure him but would certainly not put his life in danger, he should obey him. And he learns this from the words of Sefer Chasidim above that writes that something that is a danger, he shouldn’t obey. And this proves that if there is no danger, he can obey even if it injures him. And this ruling seems surprising. For what is his halakhic source that allows him to do this kind of injury? From Sefer Chasidim you could say that this is not a proof. Because the story in Sefer Chasidim is about a case that actually happened. And since it happened this way, the doctor told him that his life would be in danger if he ate a particular food. But the truth is, perhaps we could say that the same would be true even if there is no danger because at least it’s injurious…

And it occurs to me to explain the Birkhe Yosef according to the words of the Minchat Chinuch in Mitzva 48 who writes that if a person gives permission to be struck, there is no sin at all, not with regard to one’s fellow and not with regard to one’s parent…

And if so, according to this, there is an aspect to explain the position of the Birkhe Yosef. For everything that doesn’t have a danger, it is permitted to give him the food according to his order and request, even if it will injure him. For we’ll learn this logically from the case where he instructs him to strike him, in a case where the father has no benefit from this and even receives shame for it. And all the more so in a case where he asks for the food that will injure him that he has benefit from it in the palate and he doesn’t receive any shame from it…

Question:

  1. This responsa is all about what you are permitted or forbidden to do. What about what you are required to do? If you are permitted to give your parent something that will injure them if they demand it, does that mean that you must?
  2. What are the implications of this responsa regarding caring for aging parents?