There is a universal wisdom that children are supposed to respect their parents, so it is not surprising that we are introduced to the mitzvah of kibbud av va’eim—honoring one’s parents—in the “10 commandments” of last week’s parsha. This foundational mitzvah is complex, with sugiyot in the gemara, simanim in the Shulkhan Arukh and countless seforim devoted to ascertaining what that “respect” should look like. At the same time, it is quite difficult to cleanly define the “right and wrong” of the child/parent relationship—the first relationship of attachment—in as clear terms as “the minimum length of tzitzit,” or whether a hechsher “is accepted in the normative Torah observant community.”
In the field of psychology, the theory of family systems posits a more complex story. Picture this. 14 year old Chava is sent to therapy to address her problematic behavior—namely defying her parents’ rules, staying out after curfew, and experimenting with alcohol. But Chava as the “defined patient,” is merely the one in the family who is displaying symptoms of larger familial dynamics. The practitioner is likely to discover that Chava’s older brother recently left for college and has not been in touch with Chava’s mother for months. Chava’s mother is handling the separation with anxiety and has been micromanaging Chava’s every move, resulting in a rift between Chava’s parents. As an act of avoidance of interfacing with his wife’s anxiety, Chava’s father has been trying to spend more “quality time” with Chava, even at times when Chava has other plans or priorities. This change in family dynamics and her autonomy as a teenager has deeply impacted Chava, and she is acting out to assert her independence. To truly understand how to address the “problematic behavior” and “disrespect,” one would need an intervention that would address all of these external factors and behaviors present in her family unit.
While family systems theory was first published in the late 80’s by psychologists Kerr and Bowen, the idea that child behavior is often linked to home life has roots in Jewish tradition. Midrash Tanchuma tells us that a ben sorrer umoreh—a wayward and rebellious son—who engages in gluttony, drunkenness and parental defiance, becomes that way as a result of a tumultuous home life, as he is born of an isha yefat to’ar—a woman who is kidnapped and coerced into a marriage with her captor. The midrash bases its claim on the fact that the two scenarios are described sequentially in parshat ki tetzeh.
Similarly, in this week’s parasha, we are introduced to three sequential pesukim that, according to Rav Saadia Gaon (via Ibn Ezra,) tell us a similar story as it relates to the proscribed childhood misbehavior.
וּמַכֵּ֥ה אָבִ֛יו וְאִמּ֖וֹ מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת׃ וְגֹנֵ֨ב אִ֧ישׁ וּמְכָר֛וֹ וְנִמְצָ֥א בְיָד֖וֹ מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת׃ וּמְקַלֵּ֥ל אָבִ֛יו וְאִמּ֖וֹ מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת׃
And he who strikes his father or mother shall surely be put to death. And he who kidnaps a person and sells him, and he was found in his hand, shall surely be put to death. And he who curses, his father or mother shall surely be put to death. (Ex. 21:15-17)
“ויאמר הגאון: …כי רובי הגנובים הנמכרים הם קטנים, ולא יכירו אבותיהם. ויתכן שיכום או יקללום, והם לא ידעו, והעון על ראש הגנב.
[On this] Saadiah Gaon states: … the majority of kidnap victims are young children and do not recognize their parents. It is thus possible for them to strike and curse their parents. The punishment for this will fall upon the kidnapper.”
Rav Saadiah Gaon offers us an empathetic, human-centered insight into the child’s psyche. In his view, a child is naturally inclined to interface with her or her parents with respect and love. A child who acts out against his or her parents, therefore, is a child who does not feel comfortable or safe enough to connect with and recognize his or her parental relationship. Halakhically, therefore, he or she is not culpable for their behavior.
Like with all relationships, the dynamic that allows for the fulfillment of kibbud av va’eim requires reciprocal responsibility. While it is certainly incumbent upon a child to do their best to honor their parents, it is equally as important for parents to create a space where a child can feel safe and secure enough to do so. By focusing on identifying the context for the behavior, rather than placing blame on the child or the parents, Rav Saadiah Gaon presents opportunities to not just treat the symptom, but heal the underlying problem, allowing for a more sustainable framework for the mitzvah itself.