Father's Day When You Have a Bad Dad

dad and child on the beach at...
dad and child on the beach at...

This is not a Hallmark Card Father's Day type message. There are no shortage of the warm and fuzzy Father's Day cards, quotes and sentiments for you to read, bouncing around the Internet.

No, this Father's Day message is for all of us who have, or had, strained, troubled, broken or abusive relationships with dear old dad. It was actually inspired after recently counseling someone whose father had sexually abused her as a child. So, if your dad is Ward Cleaver, count your lucky stars. You don't need to read on. Go enjoy him. Love him and celebrate him. Just don't judge those of us who struggle with Father's Day because we had something far less than "Father Knows Best," for a dad.

To begin with, it's important to remember that the Hebrew Bible says, "honor your father."
It doesn't say "obey your father."
It doesn't say "respect your father."
It doesn't say "like your father."
It doesn't even say "love your father."

Of course, it would be wonderful to feel love for one's father, however, love is a feeling and feelings can't be commanded.

Some fathers are lovable. However, some fathers are not. For a myriad of reasons, they are outside the realm of our love: abuse, neglect, absence, abandonment, betrayal -- many fathers have simply made it impossible for their children to feel the emotion of love or demonstrate it back. And if you are such a child, of any age, or even if your father is dead, particularly on Father's Day when you are bombarded with Hallmark card messages of "love you dad," you need to hear this at least once today:

Look, we are not judged by our feelings, rather, we are judged by our actions. It would be nice to love dad, however, for many of us, at least at this moment, it may not be there and maybe it never will.

What is a choice, what is always a choice, however, are our actions. How do we choose to treat our dads? That is always our choice to make.

To "honor" our father, at the very least, is to treat him with common decency and dignity. In the rabbinic tradition this is the bare minimum of making sure that he is clothed, fed, and sleeps with a roof over his head. It is a minimum, it certainly isn't a maximum, but it is a start.

Beyond that there are degrees of honor -- if at all possible, picking up the phone and calling dad, speaking to dad in a dignified way and taking the kids to visit their grandfather are all rungs as we climb up the ladder of honor.

Honor, however, may also mean NOT picking up the phone, NOT visiting, or NOT placing the grandchildren into his life. Yes, that is harsh. Of course it isn't ideal. It's horrible. It's hell. However, so is physical abuse, sexual abuse or emotional abuse. Hell is having a father who is a drug addict, a compulsive liar, thief, bully or all-around bad guy.

Indeed, there is a commandment to honor one's father, however, there is no commandment to subject oneself, or own's children, to abuse, forsaking their honor, or our own, to honor an abusive dad. As much as it is a commandment to honor one's father, equally it is a commandment for a father to make it possible for his children to honor him and some dad's seem to do all they can to make this commandment nearly impossible to fulfill.

Respect must be earned.
Love must be inspired.
Honor, however, is a set of actions that we have some control over.

As sons and daughters we must do everything we can to bestow honor, at least the lowest rung on the ladder of honor, upon our dad.

Maybe this Father's Day you'll forgive your dad (alive or dead).
Possibly this Father's Day you'll love your dad.
Perhaps this Father's Day you'll find something, one thing, to respect about your dad.
However, at the very least, do whatever you can to somehow, in some way, show him some honor.

Even if he doesn't deserve it -- do it for yourself, do it for your kids, do it for God.
May we all be blessed with father's we not only honor but we love. At the very least, may we all be blessed to be sons and daughters that do our very best to show our dad, whether in life or death, deserving or not, a sense of honor on this Father's Day.

Have an Honorable Father's Day

Rabbi Baruch HaLevi
Rabbi B