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Friday, 6 June 2014

Honouring abusive parents


Rosh Hashanah 28

Over the years, Sadie has become more and more observant of her Judaism.   She’s a true inspiration to all her know her.  Nonetheless, she does have one mitzvah that she struggles with.  No, it’s not Shabbos.  It’s not kosher.   It’s not even lashon hara (avoiding gossip)!  

Her most challenging mitzvah is the fifth commandment, “Honour thy father and mother.”  Sadie had a horrendous childhood.  Her parents divorced when she was young.  She was constantly shuttled between her mom and dad who both subsequently remarried.   Most of the time, she felt unwanted and like a hassle in their lives.   There were abuse issues and she has not had much to do with her parents for many years.

She has often reasoned to herself that the purpose of the mitzvah of honouring one’s parents is to repay them for everything they have done for us in life.  Her parents were pretty much absent in her life and so maybe that’s one mitzvah she need not worry about. 

Given her troubled upbringing, is Sadie right that this is one mitzvah that she can skip?

One is not allowed to use property that was consecrated for use in the Holy Temple.  How about blowing shofar with the horn of an animal that was designated to be offered as a sacrifice?

Rabbi Judah contrasts two Temple offerings:   One should not blow with a shofar taken from the horn of an olah offering, but if one did blow he has fulfilled his obligation.   With a shofar taken from the horn of a peace offering one should not blow, and if one did blow he has not fulfilled his obligation.

What is the difference between these two offerings?  An olah offering is subject to the law of me’ilah, which says that if one derived benefit from something that was consecrated for the Temple he deconsecrates the item and must compensate the Temple the value plus one fifth.   The moment one picked up the shofar to blow, he used it for his own benefit, thereby deconsecrating it.  Therefore he effectively blew a shofar that did not belong to the Temple and has fulfilled his obligation.

The peace offering, however, is not subject to the law of me’ilah.  Therefore, the shofar remained consecrated and when he blew, he was benefitting from Temple goods and he does not fulfill his obligation.  Rava initially suggests that even when one uses the olah shofar, he should not fulfill his obligation either, since the benefit of its use only accrues at the completion of the mitzvah.  Thus, while he was blowing it, he doesn’t yet have any benefit and so he’s still using Temple goods!

Nevertheless, Rava concludes that in the case of both offerings, one has indeed fulfilled his obligation.  Why?  Because mitzvos were not given for the purpose of deriving benefit.  One is not allowed to derive benefit from consecrated Temple property.  Since doing a mitzvah, however, is not meant for benefit purposes, no deconsecration takes place when you perform the mitzvah of blowing shofar with a sacrificial horn. 

Rashi explains that mitzvos “were not given to Israel to derive benefit . . . rather, as a yoke upon their necks.”    

When I meet with a girl or boy approaching bat/bar-mitzvah, I start by asking them what it means to be a daughter or son of the ‘mitzvah.’ 
“What is a mitzvah?” I inquire.  Invariably, they’ll tell me that a mitzvah is a good deed.
“Actually, mitzvos could be good or bad,” I’ll respond, “they could be deeds, thoughts or things you say.”

Mitzvos are not just good deeds.  Some people imagine doing a mitzvah as an act of righteousness, like they did G-d a favour, or something.  Such individuals think of mitzvos as options.  Pick and choose whichever mitzvos suit your lifestyle.

Mitzvos aren’t options, they’re commandments.  G-d commanded us to keep the mitzvos.  We don’t get to choose which ones we find beneficial; rather, we must keep them like a ‘yoke upon our necks.’  Just like a yoked animal cannot choose where it wants to go, we must view ourselves as absolutely bound by the Almighty.

Some mitzvos, such as circumcision and keeping kosher obviously fall within the realm of commandments that we fulfill with the acceptance of the yoke of Heaven.   They don’t make sense to us, despite many rationalists’ best efforts to prove otherwise.   The challenge, however, is to fulfill even those mitzvos that we think we understand with the same acceptance of the yoke of Heaven.   That way, when the situation arises when there might be a good reason not to do the mitzvah, we do it anyway because G-d said so.

Even if your parents were or are abusive, you are obligated to honour them.  It may feel like a yoke around your neck, but that’s G-d’s will.  Mitzvos weren’t given to us for our benefit.  Mitzvos bind us to the Almighty, whether we understand them or not.


Mitzvos are commandments.  Mitzvos are not options.   When we commit to G-d, He commits to us. The Torah is not a menu that we can pick and choose from.  The Torah is G-d’s perfect guidebook for life.  Submit to the will of the Almighty and He will guide you through life!