Rav Assi had an elderly mother. [Once] she said to him: “I want jewelry.” He made [jewelry for her]. [Once] she said: “I want a husband.” [Rav Assi replied:] “I will look for you.” “I want one as handsome as you.” [Rav Assi] left her and went to Eretz Yisrael. He came before R. Yochanan and said to him: “Is it [halakhically] permissible to leave the Land of Israel for the Diaspora?” R. Yochanan said to him: “It is forbidden.” “[If it is] to meet my mother?”He said to him: “I don’t know.” After a short time, [Rav Assi] returned [to R. Yochanan]. “Assi, you want to leave. May God return you in peace [to Babylonia].” [Rav Assi] came before R. Eleazar and said to him: “Heaven forbid, but perhaps [R. Yochanan] was angry with me.” [R. Eleazar] said to him: “What did he say to you?” [Rav Assi] said to him: “May God return you in peace [to Babylonia].” [R. Eleazar] said to him: “If he had been angry, he would not have blessed you.” Meanwhile, [Rav Assi] heard that [his mother’s] casket was approaching. He said: “If I had known, I would not have left.”
The story of Rav Assi and his troubled relationship with his mother comes amidst a long discussion of how far one should go to fulfill the obligation of honoring one’s parents. The Rabbis were no strangers to the complexities of parent-child relationships, nor the challenges of caring for elderly and infirm parents. Rav Assi’s story deserves close scrutiny because from all appearances, he is dealing with a mentally disturbed parent, or perhaps one suffering dementia. Her demands are bizarre and unreasonable, yet he attempts to fulfill them until there is a suggestion that she wants to marry her own son. That is when Rav Assi says, “No more!” and leaves Babylonia to escape the situation.
Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long on the land that Adonai your God is giving you. (Exodus 20:12)
Curiously, the question Rav Assi poses to R. Yochanan is not, “Was it permissible for me to leave my mother in Babylonia?” but rather, “Now that I am in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel), may I leave here to return to Babylonia to attend my mother?” Yet the story, which tells us that ultimately Rav Assi’s mother died while he was in Eretz Yisrael, addresses precisely that first pressing question, which is still with us today.
What happens when a child is unable to care for an aging parent whose behavior is problematic? May the child abandon the parent if the behavior is intolerable? May the child enlist others to care for the parent in his/her stead? R. Yochanan tells Rav Assi his is obligated, having come to Eretz Yisrael, to remain there, but after he learns the backstory of Rav Assi’s escape to Eretz Yisrael, he neither chastises him for leaving his mother nor requires him to return to her. The story ends with Rav Assi’s ambiguous reflection on the news that his mother has died: Is he saying he would not have left Babylonia, or that he would not have left Eretz Yisrael to meet her coffin and accompany it to Eretz Yisrael? Did he regret leaving her, or did he believe he was not obligated to meet her coffin and bring it the rest of the way to the Land of Israel?
The story affirms that there is no simple law that covers the difficult situation of an elderly parent’s disturbing behavior; careful, sensitive, individual judgments are required in each case. Halakhic commentators proffer two views on the basis of the situation this story lays out: Moses Maimonides, the Rambam (1135–1204) says that the child should take care of the parent as best as possible, but if the situation becomes intolerable, the child may enlist others to undertake the necessary care and leave. Avraham b. David, the Ra’avad of Posquieres (c. 1125–1198) vehemently disagreed, imagining that leaving was tantamount to abandonment; it appears that he could not imagine how the child would find someone to properly care for the parents. This was, needless to say, long before nursing homes.
Today, many adults are working and raising children and at the same time have a parent who suffers mental illness, dementia, Alzheimer’s, or another condition that requires constant care. Do they always have the time, skill, energy, and resources to care for the parent themselves? Are the best interests of the parent served by the direct care of the child or would skilled care in an institution designed and staffed for such care be preferable? At the same time, many nursing homes provide substandard care (or, sadly, worse), raising the concern that consigning an elderly parent to such a place constitutes a type of abandonment.
No matter what the relationship was between the parent and child—whatever it was—this is going to be extremely challenging because it is not logical. There’s no way to deal with it rationally or directly. You don’t reason it out. What I’ve said to so many people is: we always must lead with our love.” (Dr. Stephen Hoag, author of A Son’s Handbook: Bringing Up Mom with Alzheimer’s/Dementia)
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- Have you faced Rav Assi’s situation? A Yiddish proverb holds that just as God gives burdens, so too God also gives shoulders, suggesting that we are capable of more than we realize. Has your experience borne this out? Amy Tan wrote, “If you can’t change your fate, change your attitude.” How might this advice apply to Rav Assi’s situation, or yours?
- Do you know your limits? The problem faced by Rav Assi and so many others defies simple rules, in part because everyone’s ability to cope and provide care is different. It’s important to know one’s limits. Do you know yours?
- Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: "What we owe the old is reverence, but all they ask for is consideration, attention, not to be discarded and forgotten. What they deserve is preference, yet we do not even grant them equality. One father finds it possible to sustain a dozen children, yet a dozen children find it impossible to sustain one father. Perhaps this is the most distressing aspect of the situation. The care for the old is regarded as an act of charity rather than as a supreme privilege." (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Insecurity of Freedom, p. 70). How do his thoughts inform this conversation?