Damah the son of Netinah, the same man who turned down a fortune rather than wake his father for the key of the treasure box, was once sitting in state among the noblemen of Rome, dressed in a gold embroidered silk cloak. All of a sudden the door flew open and in walked his mother. She strode over to him, ripped the gold cloak from his shoulders, banged her fists on his head, and spit in his face. And Damah remained silent.
The sages asked Rabbi Eliezer, “To what extremes does Kibbud Av V’eim oblige one to go? To the point that if your father throws your money into the sea, you should remain silent?” Rav Hunah used to tear up his son’s precious silks in front of him and then watch to see if his son became angry. The mother of Rav Assi demanded the impossible of him. Find me a husband,” she demanded, “who is as young and handsome as you are.” Being unable to fulfill her impossible requests, Rav Assi left his mother and traveled to another country.
All of these cases have one feature in common. The parents, by straining the tolerance of their children to the breaking point, pushed them to the brink of disrespect.
A parent may not beat his grown child because this may lead the child to react and beat his parent, an action that in Jewish law carries the death penalty. Similarly, a parent may not abuse the privilege of Kibbud Av V’eim because by so doing the parent is violating the biblical prohibition of lifnei iver lo titein michshol, which means one should not cause the unsuspecting to sin.
The Shulchan Aruch cautions: “A parent should not overburden their children and should not be fastidious in their insistence on respect but should rather be forgiving and turn a blind eye, for a parent may waive the duty of respect.” If the great Abraham could wait over his nomadic guests and if God himself could lead His people through the desert and waive His honor, surely, parents can find it in them to do the same.
If one finds oneself a victim of such abuse, one may, rather than run the risk of reactive disrespect, take action to prevent the abuse from occurring, or at least to remove oneself from the situation. Accordingly, the Rema rules that one may prevent one’s parent from throwing one’s money into the sea and one may even sue them for the return of the money if one was unable to prevent it.
The Aruch HaShulchan rules that if one finds oneself in a situation where, like Damah the son of Netinah, one is about to be publicly embarrassed by one’s parents, action may be discreetly taken to bar their entry. And the Lashon Riaz rules that if one’s parents are people of evil ways, who abusive and torment their children, one may avoid contact with them and even leave for another country as Rav Assi did.
Indeed the Torah does not command one to love one’s parents as it commands one to love God. Loving God is an emotion that wells up inside us in reaction to the love God has for us. Where there is love there is automatic respect. If parents show love for their children, respect will automatically be part of the love children return to their parents. Some people however, are not blessed with parents who love them like God loves his children. Such parents are still entitled to respect but they must not abuse the privilege.
All of this is perhaps inherent in the order in which the Talmud proscribes the duty of parents toward children and the duty of children toward parents. First the Talmud discusses the father’s duty to teach his child Torah, help the child marry, and teach the child a profession. Only then does the Talmud discuss the duty of the child to honor the parents. Perhaps the lesson is that the parent who puts his or her child’s welfare before his or her own earns the love of the child. And where there is love, there is respect.