Yesterday, we noted Chida’a discussion (in his Midbar Kedeimot, Ma’arekhet Khaf, 4; and elsewhere) regarding Rachel’s theft of her father’s “terafim” (either idols or oracles), as related in Parashat Vayeitze (31:19). Chida cites the Zohar as commenting that Rachel was severely punished for causing her father anguish, and many inferred from the Zohar’s remarks that one is obligated to respect his parent even if the parent is a corrupt evildoer, like Lavan. The Zohar’s comment would thus seem to stand in opposition to the Mishna’s description (Pesachim 4:9) of Chizkiyahu disgracing his wicked father, Achaz, after his death, with the sages’ approval. Chida suggests reconciling these different sources by distinguishing between the obligation to respect a living parent, which perhaps applies regardless of the parent’s conduct, and the obligation to respect a deceased parent, which does not apply if the parent was sinful.
As mentioned yesterday, this distinction is proposed also by the Lechem Mishneh commentary to the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, in reference to the Rambam’s explicit ruling requiring one to respect an iniquitous parent (Hilkhot Mamrim 6:11). Numerous writers, as we saw, challenged the Rambam’s view in light of the Gemara’s discussion in Masekhet Bava Kama (94b) concerning the case of a deceased thief. The Gemara rules that if the thief had repented before his passing, then the children must return stolen goods which were part of his estate, to preserve his honor, but if he had not repented, then they need not honor his memory. To defend the Rambam’s position, the Lechem Mishneh suggests that the Rambam refers only to the requirement to respect a living parent, whereas a deceased parent need not be respected if he was sinful.
This distinction is suggested also by the Radbaz, who adds an explanation for the difference between the case of a living sinful parent and a deceased sinful parent. He writes that while a parent is still alive, there remains a chance that he will correct his wayward behavior. Even if a parent is sinful, the prospect of repentance and change cannot be ignored, and so the obligation of kibbud av va-eim (respecting parents) remains in force. Fundamentally, according to the Radbaz, there is no requirement to respect an evil parent, but in practice, this provision is inapplicable until the parent passes on, because until then, the parent cannot be definitively labelled as “evil.”
Different explanations have been offered as to why, according to the Radbaz, the prospect of future repentance prevents us from considering the father “evil” in the present, when he acts in a corrupt, debased manner. Some explain based on the famous notion (Yoma 86b) that repentance driven by love for God (as opposed to the fear of punishment) retroactively transforms one’s sins into sources of merit. Accordingly, a sinner’s status could always be retroactively changed, such that the status of “rasha” (“evil person”) cannot be definitively assigned until after death. Others understand the Radbaz to mean that a child’s disrespect for a parent causes the parent anguish even many years later, and so if a wicked parent repents, the child will then be held accountable for the anguish experienced by the parent from that point onward.
Rav Shraga Feivel Paretsky (Ner La’ma’or, p. 149) offers a different explanation, boldly suggesting that perhaps the Radbaz understood the kibbud av va-eim obligation as including a requirement to anticipate a sinful parent’s repentance. Part of the respect owed to the parents is the belief in their capacity for good even if they are currently sinful. Children of wayward parents are not to dismiss them as evil, but must rather continue hoping and trusting that they are capable of changing. And thus it is only after a sinful parent’s death that the child is absolved of the requirement to respect the parent.
(It should be emphasized that in a case where a parent mistreats the child himself, other factors likely absolve the child from the obligation of kibbud av va-eim, irrespective of the question of whether this obligation applies to a parent who can be considered a “rasha.”)