The Weight of Honor: Coming to Terms with a Dishonorable Parent
Jonathan Roth Magidovitch
In my student years, I worked at a mental health center as a therapist in training. The program was based in the psychology department of a Midwestern university.
Early in my training, a new client came in very agitated. He was sure he was going to hell because he did not honor his father. Honoring parents, he knew, was one of the Ten Commandments. He could not honor his father because the man came home drunk most nights and beat up his wife, the client’s mother.
I told the client that he was working with a bad translation of Commandment Five. The King James version reads: “Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.”
In the original Hebrew, the word translated here as “honor” is “kabed” כבד. The basic or root meaning of kabed is “weight.”
I guided the client to understand that obeying Commandment Five was not about giving honor to a drunken, violent father.
For the son, obeying the commandment then was about seeing who his father was and how his father’s actions impacted him. That is, obeying Commandment Five is acknowledging the weight of parents in our lives.
Obeying the commandment would call on this son to understand who he came from, and should he become a husband and father, to be careful not to reenact the dramas played out before him by his father.
Breaking the commandment would be to say, “my father was a wife-beating drunk and that has had no effect on me.” Such a misbelief would lead to inadequate preparation for the potential fallout of his father’s influence in his life. And so it would go on until someone said, “enough.” (*See Susan Jones reference below.)
That client successfully met his treatment objectives. While I do not know if he turned away from his religion or stayed “churched”, many people do turn away from religion because of this mistranslation of Commandment Five. They feel damned for doing something they know is right, for NOT honoring dishonorable parents.
It is a mistake to see religion as protecting power whether or not that power is right.
In our particular circumstance, turning away from religion would have been yet more fallout caused by the dishonorable actions of a parent to their child. Primary damage is the bad influence of the parent’s actions; secondary damage is the child’s loss of connection with a social and values system that provides positive models of behavior.
Religion is at core a radical rejection of power, “Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit.” (Zechariah 4:6) Religion’s central assertion is that material and any power derived from material is no match for Spirit (God).
Spirit is not subject to corruption but religion is highly subject to corruption.
In the name of religion people buy buildings and hire staff and with that comes all the obligations and risks of material life. In this way, religion becomes an easy target for dismissal.
The most direct protection from the potential corruptions of religion is careful and constant questioning of Spirit itself, “What does Spirit want of us?”
WWJD, “what would Jesus do” is an example of questioning of Spirit.
In Genesis is another example of questioning Spirit. When Abraham and God were discussing the fate of the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, God revealed to Abraham His plan to destroy the cities. Abraham started a negotiation with God. Would the presence within of ten righteous people be enough to save to the cities? Even ten were not to be found so the few righteous were exited and the cities destroyed. But, in the negotiation, the man Abraham challenges God, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25)
In questioning Spirit we come upon something we can sink our “therapeutic” teeth into.
Religion creates a context through which we can relate with Spirit and this human-Spirit relationship is the model by which we test and mend our other relationships. We ask Spirit what is expected of us and we tell our expectations. We question the justness of the other, even when that other is Spirit itself.
When religion is working correctly, it frames our relationship with Spirit as a healthy relationship, healthy because it allows for questioning; healthy because it allows us to be human.
That client who could not respect his father came in anxious because he knew what he needed to do and it was not to honor his father.
Given the new translation of Commandment Five, the client understood that his job was not to honor his dishonorable father. His job was to understand the impact of his father’s actions on him and to make sure that negative effects did not infect his other (future) relationships.
Ideally, the client and his father would work on their relationship in a safe environment, best in a counseling setting. However, if the client did not feel able or safe to do that work, he could (and did) work on the “kabed,” the weightiness in his upbringing in order to safeguard his own future.
He fulfilled the mandate of Commandment Five, “Honor (Acknowledge the weight of thy father and thy mother (in your life), that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.”
In future, we will prepare a related article on the subject of “The Disrespectful Child.”
Yosef Meged is a business and personal coach working with individuals, families and businesses. Yosef lives and works in the United States and Israel. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. In the USA, Yosef works under his American name: Jonathan Roth Magidovitch.
*For research on intergenerational transmission of behaviors and a therapeutic intervention model see: Jones, Susan, MSW. “The Dynamics of Intergenerational Behavior and Forgiveness Therapy. Presented at: North American Association of Christians in Social Work NACSW Convention, October 2012. St. Louis, MO.