GEN770 “To lead one’s parents in and take them out”—part of the definition of honoring parents—denotes a kind of personal service when parents are unable to walk in and out by themselves. Maimonides articulated that tone clearly: “And he [the son] leads [the father] in and out and serves him in the other ways in which we serve a teacher.” Footnote 36 The medieval moralist Rabbi Isaac Alnakawa defined this in terms of adult children and their able parents: “’Lead them out’”-How is this to be done? The son is obliged to accompany his father and mother, and not to turn his back until they are out of sight. ‘Take him in’-How is this to be done? He is obliged to give them a fitting dwelling, or rent one for them. And when the father or mother enters the son’s home, he must rejoice in their coming and receive them happily.” Menorat Ha-Ma’or (ed. Enelow), 4:15-16, cited in Blidstein (1975), 53
. For many of us, though, the implications of this requirement vis-à-vis frail parents are much more extensive, for Jewish law understood honor of parents to include the requirement not to abandon them. The Midrash states this poignantly. At the very beginning of our familiarity with Abraham in the Bible, when he was still called Abram, we read: “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” [this verse] In commenting on this verse, a midrash (a rabbinic interpretation explanation of the verse) says this: “Abram was apprehensive, saying, ‘When I leave, men will profane the name of God because of me, as they will say, ‘He left his aged father and went off.’” So God said to Abram, “I release you from the obligation of honoring your father and your mother, but I will release no other person from this obligation.” Genesis Rabbah 39:7
The midrash is troubled by the fact that Abram leaves his aged father. What kind of beginning is that for future patriarch of the Jewish people? And indeed, Abram’s own equanimity in the situation is surprising: He is worried only about what others will say, not about the inherent wrongfulness of abandoning his father. The midrash explains these facts as the result of a specific decree of God so that God could use him as a leader. As Gerald Blidstein points out, “this is a typological rather than unique: the young prophet leaves the home of his parents for the company of Elijah, [and] the student of the sage chooses the academy over home and prefers the service of his master to that of his parent.” Blidstein (1975), 111. For the story to which he is referring, in which Elisha leaves home to join Elijah, see 1 Kings 19:15-21. For rabbinic sources on people leaving home to study, see B. Megillah 16b, M.T. Laws of Rebels (Mamrim) 6:13; and S.A. Yoreh De’ah 240:13.
But those are the exceptions
to the rule: unless one is engaged directly in God’s service as either prophet or rabbinic scholar, one is obligated to accompany one’s parents through their old age. It is important to understand that the duty to be with one’s aged parents is not only to be able to take care of their physical needs, a task that presumably could be done by person hired for the job, but also for the psychological reason that they need company—especially from those who can most directly gives them a sense of worth and continuity. Loneliness is painful for anyone. The presence of friends alleviates that, but nothing can replace seeing members of one’s own family. That too is a “need”—or better, an opportunity for honor. Even God, according to the Midrash, exemplifies this value by bidding us to build a sanctuary so that God can dwell among us: “You are my children, and I am your father… It is an honor for children to dwell with their father, and it is an honor for the father to dwell with his children… Make, therefore, a house for the father in which he can dwell with his children.” Exodus Rabbah 34:3 The midrash is commenting on Exodus 25:8, “and make for Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them.”
Thus, although the major medieval codes do not directly require that children reside with parents, they undoubtedly assume it. Blidstein (1975), 113-115
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