Commentary by Dr. Ursula A. Falk


The Betrayal of the Fifth Commandment


In this, the 21st century Jewish world, do children need to keep the fifth commandment intact when dealing with their elderly parents? This commandment is the only one that carries a reward with it. Honor thy father and thy mother so that thou shall live long on earth. The reverse is inherent in the text of this “law”. From grief and disparagement, emotional harm can cause depression, illness and ultimately death. Our Talmud scholars knew this long before modern psychology brought these findings to the forefront of knowledge. Ingratitude is not uncommon among mankind. Adult children choose to forget how many times parents have lost sleep tending to their offspring; how often they have given up pleasures and material goods to afford those things for the sake of the young ones; how they have struggled to create happiness for them; how they have interceded on their behalf to make life less painful and how they would do almost anything to protect their progeny to keep even the slightest danger away. Parents are mostly ignored and denigrated as they lose the ability to give lavishly to their children. Children have been known to be ashamed of their parents and their “old fashioned ideas”. They are excluded from places because “they would spoil the fun”! They are, however, brought out as tokens for such celebrations as bar or bat mitzvot since it might be considered unseemly to not have them present and might throw a shadow on the celebrant and his kin. On such occasions and after a perfunctory introduction and greeting and some compliments about their wonderful grandchildren, they are left to sit and if some other senior citizens are present they are isolated with them, regardless of their relationships with these folks. In their daily lives they are mostly ignored or held responsible for the real or imaginary unhappiness or misfortunes of their adult children. It is not unusual for an adult offspring to dominate an older parent, make unasked for “suggestions” and take over the parent’s life with veiled threats of withdrawal of affection to a parent who already feels less than emotionally strong. There is the control freak daughter who takes over any and all attempts to allow her parents to host celebrations, or the son or daughter who is too busy to stop in to see the parents as he/she has so much in his/her “own life” taking place. There is the “child” who does not think of incorporating his parent to join him in a vacation that the older person might also enjoy but feels too lonely or frail to do by himself. There are many more situations in which older parents are belittled. Whenever a younger person accompanies an older one to a physician's visit, the older one, the primary patient, is addressed through the younger one when directives or explanations are given and the patient himself is treated as a child or automatically considered senile, or at least bestowed with the determination that he cannot comprehend that which is imparted by the bard. Frequently because of misunderstandings, children do not inform an older parent of a close relative's death for fear that this will do harm. It is much more harmful to withhold such information, since sooner or later the older person either learns of the catastrophe or feels rejected because of the sudden unexplained disappearance of the deceased.

It must be remembered that there are many occurrences that take place not because of ill will on the part of adult children but because they have not experienced old age, are very much preoccupied with earning a livelihood, coping with stress, rearing their offspring and much more! The majority of people are well intentioned and mean to do no harm. The majority of adult children love their parents but forget that their parents once were children, now grown old, who still need their respect and love! 

As a social worker and psychotherapist, I have observed the many betrayals of the Fifth Commandment and the pain that it has caused to innumerable mothers and fathers!

Those of us who are fortunate to have children who understand these concepts and practice them are very grateful to them! Tova Rabah.


Dr. Ursula A. Falk is a psychotherapist in private practice and the co-author, with Dr. Gerhard Falk, of the forthcoming Youth Culture and the Generation Gap.

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