The Torah teaches us, “Honor your father and mother.” There are many ways for us to do this as our parent’s age and many choices of how we can do this depending on the circumstance of care they need.
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said, “Honor and respect the aged and saintly scholar whose physical powers are broken, equally with the young and vigorous one; for the broken tablets of stone, no less than the whole ones, had a place in the Ark of the Covenant. Many have obligations toward aging parents and children, some even grandchildren. As people age and are living longer, Jewish tradition can teach what our obligations are.
Hillel teaches…If I cannot adequately care for myself, I am obligated to allow another trusted person to assist me…but I must be aware of his or her personal needs and feelings also. And, I may not wait until the last minute to accept or enlist the help I need.
Maimonides instructs…One should select as attendants and caretakers those who can cheer up the patient [resident]. This is a must with every illness.
Remember, though it may be difficult to have these conversations with our parents; it is always more meaningful when we work in partnership with aging parents. Knowing the wishes of our loved ones and knowing their desires when they are in good health is so much better than reacting in a crisis situation which causes undue stress to all involved. Often, however, it takes a crisis to open our eyes. And often, decisions of what to do, unfortunately, (especially in today’s economy, 2010) come down to fiduciary issues.
Rabbis of the Palestinian Talmud and Babylonian Talmud teach the following and of course are in debate. On the one hand, Palestinian Rabbis say, “Children must support their impoverished parents even if the children themselves are poverty stricken (JT Kiddushin, 1:7).” One the other hand, Babylonian Rabbis say, “The money for such support should come from the estate of funds of the parents (BT Kiddushin 32a).” So who do we follow today? Both: The family is not required to impoverish themselves in the pursuit of fulfilling the commandments and parents have a responsibility to handle as much of their own financial obligations of care giving as possible.
Why is money such a hot issue? Money makes independence possible, independence fosters self-worth, and self-worth makes life meaningful. This is the last way in which a parent can be a self-directing and self-supporting person. Remember a parent who is old is still an adult. What life has taken away in terms of capabilities does not mean total incapacity until that state is truly reached.
Today, Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman teaches, “Judaism offers a perspective on relationships between adult children and their parent that can provide us with compassionate, pragmatic moral guidance. Our tradition urges respectful attentive care, on the one hand, and on the other hand, recognizes and supports accepting the limits of what adult children can do.” It is fully appropriate under Jewish law to turn to in-home nursing services, a part-time arrangement, or a nursing home placement. Finding assistance, which allows the child to work, can be a mode of personal service, of demonstrating honor and respect.
The Mitsvah of honoring parents, as the Talmud defines it, consists of six primary actions: to give food and drink, to clothe and shod (give shoes to wear), and to take out and bring in (meaning, find the parent ways to get out, get fresh air, interact with society, and then get home). That would pretty much mean that the child is obligated to see to it that the parent has these basic needs taken care of. There is a lively debate among halachic authorities as to whether the child is required to pay for this, or only to use the parent's money to see to it these needs are met.
In a pinch-- if the parent has no money, and the child refuses to use his/her own money-- Jewish law allows using funds that person had intended to give to charity in order to support the parent. In saying that, though, the sources immediately denigrate a person who would do such a thing.
In all this, I should stress that the attitude with which it is done is almost as important as getting it done. Giving these forms of honor to a parent, but clearly begrudgingly, is almost as bad as not doing them at all. Our parents, in Jewish thought, are almost like God Himself (as it were, but that is a parallel the Talmud itself draws). Note that it's a very limited divinity-- it's only in terms of the child, not anyone else.
So at the base level, children are clearly obligated to take care of their parents in these ways, seeing to it that their basic health needs are supplied. In general, Jewish law prefers that a person do a mitsvah him or herself than finding someone else to do it for them. In the case of parents who need significant care, however, that might not be feasible. With parents who are no longer in their full right mind (or, perhaps, never were) making it difficult for the child to handle the parent with the deserved respect (meaning: a child is not allowed to talk back to a parent, to contradict a parent, to raise a voice to a parent, and so on), there is room to outsource the care of a parent, the better to avoid transgressing the need to treat that parent with propriety.
The Torah actually dedicates three separate verses to remind and reinforce a child’s obligation to one’s parents. In these verses the Torah employs two different verbs to describe our obligation “Yirah” (fear) and “Kavod” (honor). “Yirah” was interpreted by the rabbis to indicate those actions we were forbidden to take against our parents, while “kavod” was interpreted to indicate the positive actions we should take to fulfill this commandment. Many different classical sources attempt to enumerate and discuss a child’s obligations to parents, both positive and negative, in great detail.
Further, considering the fact that two of these verses appear as the fifth of the “Ten Commandments”, which were given to the ancient Israelites on Mt.Sinai, clearly our obligation in regard to parents was considered by the Torah to be extremely important. Rabbinic literature, in the Talmud, highlights the significance of the child’s obligation to one’s parent with a revealing vignette. A son is caring for his aging and ill father who asks him for a glass of water. By the time he returns with the water, his father has fallen asleep. He therefore stands by his father’s bedside for hours, glass in hand, until his father wakes up, allowing him to fulfill his father’s original command at the first possible moment. In light of this story, our obligation to aging parents seems limitless. The logic seems to be that they helped give us life, so we owe them whatever we can give.
In addition, elsewhere in Rabbinic literature, on several occasions, the rabbis inquire as to what the limit of financial support due to a parent might be. While multiple opinions are shared, in essence the opinion that the child must support his parents with his own funds is upheld again and again. To exactly what extent must one stretch financially, no hard and fast rule can fit every situation. However, clearly there is a serious obligation that the child owes his parents in these situations that does demand that the child make reasonable sacrifices. In situations in which the parents have acted in a pattern of wickedness or attempted to force the child to violate the commandments, things are not as clear. For example, Yosef Karo who authored the major Jewish legal code, the Shulkhan Arukh, wrote “Even if his father is a wicked sinner, the son honors and reveres him.” However, Rabbi Moshe Issreles, another great Jewish legal figure who wrote the gloss that appears integrated into Karo’s own text, wrote “There are those who say that one is not obligated to honor his wicked father unless he did teshuvah (sought repentance).” In other words, according to Issreles, if your parents were wicked, both in general or to the child, this could release the child from the obligation to support the parent, unless the parent sincerely sought forgiveness.
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