A Chinese Lesson

Visit your elderly parent — or face fines and even possible detention.

That’s the word this week from the Chinese government.

New wording in the law requiring people to visit or keep in touch with their elderly parents or risk being sued and facing penalties came into force Monday, as China faces increasing difficulty in caring for its aging population. China’s legislature amended the law following frequent reports of elderly parents neglected by their children. It says offspring of parents older than 60 should see that their daily, financial and spiritual needs are met.

For Torah Jews the matter is clear cut: The obligation to honor our parents is the fifth of the Aseres Hadibros — the Ten Commandments. The precise details of this obligation are clearly spelled out in the Shulchan Aruch and various other halachic sources.

Historically, Chinese culture, much as that of numerous other countries, included a deeply engrained respect for the elderly. But three decades of market reforms have accelerated the breakup of China’s traditional extended family, and there are few affordable alternatives, such as retirement homes.

One of the drafters of the Chinese law, Xiao Jinming, a law professor at Shandong University, said the new law was primarily aimed at raising awareness.

“It is mainly to stress the right of elderly people to ask for emotional support. We want to emphasize there is such a need,” he said.

On one hand, it is sad that such a law is even necessary. On the other, the Chinese are to be commended for at least taking steps to right a widespread wrong.

In contrast, contemporary American culture has relegated this obligation to two days a year — Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, respectively. The other 363 days are Youth Days, when homage is primarily paid to the young.

As America celebrates Independence Day, it has much to be proud of. Two hundred and thirty seven years after the United States broke away from England, it has retained a democratic system that is the envy of the world.

However, in numerous areas relating to moral values, America is repeatedly falling short, and respect for the elderly is one of them. Caring for parents and grandparents should never be seen as a charitable activity.

Gratitude towards those who raised us is a fundamental, universal concept that transcends cultures and countries. Throughout this land there are seniors who have given their all for family and country. The least that can be done is to show gratitude by making certain that they are visited regularly and their every need is met.