Reader: At what point can a parent not be honored? My father committed incest. Do I have to honor him? My mother stole from me. Do I have to honor her?
Mesora: In his laws of Rebellion (Mamrim) 6:7, Maimonides describes the extent of one’s required parental fear and honor:
“How far must one go in his honor of his parents? Even if they take your purse of gold for before you, and toss it to the ocean in front of you, do not shame them and do not be pained before them, and do not be angry in front of them, rather, accept the decree of the Torah and be silent. And how far must one go in his fear of his parents? Even if one was wearing precious garments, sitting at the head in front of the congregation, and his father and mother came and tore his garments, hit him on the head, and spat in front of him; Do not shame them, but be silent, and fear and tremble from the King, King of all kings, that commanded you in this. Because if a flesh and blood king commanded on you a matter more painful than this, you would not be able to refuse the matter. Certainly (the command) of the One Who spoke and the world came into being - as is His will.”
In law 11 he writes: “Even if you father is wicked and one of many sins, honor and fear him.”
Maimonides defines “Honor” as feeding him, clothing him, rising upon his entrance, and ministering before him as a servant in front of his master. Honor is defined as “positives”. “Fear” is defined as not contradicting him, not sitting in his seat, and not calling him by his name. Fear is defined as “negatives”, or rather, not detracting from his reputation or identity.
But we must understand why such sinful parents deserve our honor and fear. What is the Torah principle, which underlies these commands, demanding our honor and fear of those who harm us?
The Torah equated honoring one’s father and mother to honoring G-d. The equation is that fear and honor of G-d commences with our initial fear and honor of our parents. A child learns from early on, the concept of “authority”. Parents are taller, stronger, more capable, they punish us, and they nurture us. They are the source of our good and evil. We turn to them for all our fears and desires. In short, G-d designed mankind in a manner where he must learn the concept of an ‘authority figure’. Had man not been born, but created as Adam, complete, tall, and independent, with all the knowledge needed to survive, he would have no need for parents, and he would forfeit the lesson of authority. But it is vital that this lesson be learned, as it is essential for the greatest objective: Love of G-d. It is only through our state as feeble and dependent infants, that the role of authority may be successfully permeated into our being. Some semblance of authority must be learned early on, if we are to express “fear and honor” with relation to G-d. Without learning what authority is in our youth, we cannot approach our fear and love of G-d as adults. Once we accept the Creator’s authority, we may then excel to a true appreciation of His majesty based on the knowledge we are fortunate enough to acquire during the rest of our lives.
For this reason, in the Ten Commandments, the command to fear and honor parents is rightfully placed in the section dealing with our approach to G-d, not our fellow man – in the first, Five Commands. When the Talmud equated fear and honor of parents to fear and honor of G-d, the equation is not one of commonality - it is an equation of dependency: fear and honor of G-d depends on man’s inculcation of parental fear and honor.
Therefore, although our parents may sin and afflict us, this in no way removes the command to fear and honor them. For when we do, we are in fact respecting G-d’s command, as Maimonides stated: “Because if a flesh and blood king commanded on you a matter more painful than this, you would not be able to refuse the matter. Certainly (the command) of the One Who spoke and the world came into being - as is His will.”
Understanding that you fulfill G-d’s will in your act of honoring and fearing your parents, must be your focus. This knowledge should make the performance one you desire to do.
We thereby learn that G-d’s will must replace our emotional tendencies, for He knows best what is essential for our perfection.