Dear Rabbi and Susan Lapin,
First off, thank you for all that you both do and the wisdom you dispense through your podcasts, books and teachings. I find them all tremendously valuable and you have impacted my life for the better.
I have a question regarding my parents. Their marriage has been on the rocks for the past five years and they are now choosing to separate, but not divorce, because of their beliefs. Their issue is not due to infidelity but seems to be a communication and pride problem. They have been married for over forty years and have raised five children together, of which I am the youngest.
My question is what should our response be as their adult children? My instinct is to not get involved or share my opinions because it could be seen as taking sides and it doesn’t seem respectful.
As for background: we all live near our parents, there are many grandchildren in the family, we are all Christians, and we see each other often. I am struggling to identify what my responsibility is in this situation while still honoring my parents. My wife and I disagree with them not choosing to work harder on their marriage but we don’t know if it is our place to confront them on it.
One of my siblings suggested talking to them as a group, what do you think?
Any insights you could provide would be most welcome. Thank you tremendously.
Your sad situation reflects an important truth. No matter how old one’s children are, divorce is going to affect them. Of course, it also affects more distant relatives, friends, social circles and work groups. We are very sorry that you and your siblings and children are facing this situation.
Having said that, your instincts are spot on. In our audio CD on the Ten Commandments we explain why the Fifth Commandment about honoring parents is related to the Tenth Commandment, “Do not covet.” In short, recognizing one’s specific place in relationship to others is something that leads to happier interactions. We also explain why the Fifth Commandment is placed on the first tablet that otherwise deals with the interaction between people and God, while the second tablet deals with interactions between people and people. Honoring parents seems to be in the wrong place. Correctly understanding why there were two tablets clears up this confusion but even on a basic level it is clear that one’s parents occupy a position that no other people do.
Because of this, children have to be very careful about what is and isn’t appropriate in their communication with parents. Interference in the parental marital relationship is specifically an area that is largely off-limits. Your sibling’s suggestion of all the children going as a group would only raise the level of disrespect.
Considerable calumny is heaped on Jacob’s eldest son, Reuben for intruding on his father’s private life.
While Israel stayed in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah,
his father’s concubine; and Israel heard…
Ancient Jewish wisdom informs us that Reuben did not actually lay a hand on Bilhah, but that he moved Jacob’s bed from Bilhah’s room to that of Leah his mother. The language of the Bible is especially harsh to teach that interfering in even the mildest way in his father’s marital life was a serious violation.
Of course, your parents separating after all these years is difficult for you all. Perhaps, even as youngest, you can lead your siblings towards an understanding that the proper role is non-interference.
You are absolutely correct that your obligation is to honor both your parents. They are now making this harder in many ways though we hope that they will not make it more uncomfortable than necessary. Nonetheless, you and your siblings can set an example for your own children in respecting your parents’ decision and coping with disappointment.
You, of course, don’t know the whole story and kudos to your parents for not asking you to take sides or sharing inappropriate confidences with you. Maybe some time apart will give them new perspective or perhaps someone other than your sibling group will approach your parents and help them, if possible, to recapture affection for each other. We would suggest you and your siblings get together to discuss how to share this with the grandchildren and how to explain it to them in an age-appropriate but nonetheless substantive way.
Whatever the future holds, you and your wife can use this unfortunate occurrence to commit more strongly to maintaining your own relationship and covenant of marriage.
Thank you for your kind words,
Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin