Honoring Wicked Parents

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Reader: I have a problem with the Ten Commandment (just read last week).  How can I honor a father who abandoned his wife and children and went to set up another family with another woman? 

Rabbi: “Even if your father is a wicked person and has violated many sins, you must honor him and be fearful of him” (Hilchos Mamrim 6:11).  Earlier in law 6:1 Maimonides equates honoring parents to honoring God:

It is a great positive precept to honor father and mother; so too, to pay reverence to father and mother. Scripture considers the duty of honoring parents and revering them equal to the duty of honoring and revering God. 

 His principle follows the idea conveyed in the Ten Commandments. As the first five commandments are laws between man and God, why is honoring parents included in that section? The answer to both the Ten Commandments and to Hilchos Mamrim is that honoring parents is an expression of honoring God. We don't honor our parents because of who they are, but as a recognition of an authority. It is only through honoring parents that we come to honor the Greatest Authority. Therefore if one does not honor parents, he has closed off the path to honoring God: as he cannot make the first step to recognize a human authority, he will certainly not recognize God, for he has no model of authority through which he can transfer on to God. 

The rabbis teach that 3 matters were taught in Marah, to where the Jews traveled after leaving the Reed Sea: honoring parents, courts, and the Sabbath. The common denominator of these 3 laws is that they target the acceptance of an authority. We must first honor parents as our initial encounter with an authority, then we accept judges, courts and their rulings, and finally we accept God through the Sabbath which celebrates His role as the ultimate authority, the creator.

These laws—primary lessons of accepting in authority—were given at Marah en route to Mount Sinai as a prerequisite to accepting God's Torah at Sinai.

We now understand that honoring parents has nothing to do with honoring their character, but their capacity of their role. However emotionally difficult it may be to show honor and reverence to your father, remind yourself continually that this is God's command and that you were respecting His institution, not a person.