You receive a telephone call offering you ten million dollars; all you have to do is go upstairs and wake your father from his mid-day nap. Who’d hesitate?
The Talmud tells an interesting story in praise of Dama son of Nethinah, a non-Jew, who went to great lengths to honor his father: “Go forth and see what a certain heathen, Dama son of Nethinah by name, did in Ashkelon. The Sages once desired merchandise from him, in which there was six-hundred-thousand [gold denarii] profit, but the key [to the vault] was lying under his father’s [head], and so he did not trouble [wake] him” (Kiddushin 31a).
This story highlights an interesting conundrum. Beyond food, shelter and clothing, the halacha does not require a person to make financial sacrifices in order to honor one’s parents. But, waking one’s parent would be a transgression of the Fifth Commandment.* Perhaps that is why “Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said that the most difficult to observe of all the 613 commandments is ‘Honor your father and mother’” (Tanhuma, Ekev 2).
Honoring your mother and father, while it sounds like instructions for a child, is a mitzvah that one may perform throughout one’s adult life. And since children grow into adults, the relationship one has with one’s parents is also constantly changing. No matter one’s personal situation, or, indeed, the history between a parent and a child, the mitzvah requires that children prioritize their parent’s basic needs.
*If the parent would be distressed at the financial loss, one would be allowed to wake him or her.
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