Judaism: Torah Q & A: Where Does Duty Lie?
Q. I am a married woman with children. My parents are still alive but are elderly and unwell. I also have an unmarried brother who has health problems. Where does my duty lie?
A. The Torah insists that we be responsive to and supportive of those who are in need - especially the widow, orphan and stranger. The prophet Isaiah (58:7) spells out the duty one has towards them: to feed the hungry, provide a home for the homeless, supply clothing for those who need it, etc. Maimonides’ famous Eight Rungs of Charity say that the greatest thing one can do for others is to provide them with opportunity and hope (the Chinese say that better than a fish is a fishing rod).
Where does all this begin? Isaiah says, “Do not hide yourself from your own flesh” (58:7), which establishes the rule, according to the sages, that your first duty is towards your family, who are “your own flesh” (Ketubot 52b, 86a). You know this, or else you would not have told me so much about your family situation.
Within the family there are always tensions and competing claims; maybe this is what is causing you distress. It is the wisdom and diplomacy of the woman on which more or less everything tends to depend: “Every wise woman builds her house, but the foolish pulls it down with her own hands” (Prov. 14:1).
What the Codes of Jewish Law (e.g. Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 251) add is that there is an order of priorities: one’s spouse (whose well-being is at all times a married person’s first responsibility), parents (both father and mother), then children, siblings, and other family members – followed by your immediate neighbours, your fellow citizens in general, and the needy of other places.
The old saying, “Charity begins at home”, is the Jewish principle... but we would extend the saying in these terms, “Charity begins at home – but it doesn't end there”. Isaiah 57:19 says, “Peace, peace, to him that is far off and to him that is near”. It’s not enough to limit your support to those who are near – or even those who are further off.