We like to believe that with just the right words we can influence anyone to make better choices. But there are limits, especially when encountering addiction or other compulsive behaviors.

To this end, the Midrash1 tells a story of a pious man whose father was losing his battle with alcohol.

The father frequently staggered around in public, even collapsing in a drunken heap in the gutter. He became the object of mockery and ridicule from adults, who would declare, “There goes the drunk!” and from children, who would chase him and pelt him with stones.

The son was so ashamed of his father’s behavior that he contemplated death as a better option.

“Father, you are making a disgrace of us both,” he pleaded desperately. “At very least, stay home instead of going to the bar, and I will bring you a full selection of wines. If you are going to drink yourself to oblivion, at least do so in private.”

The father agreed, and from then on the son brought his father food and drink each morning and again each evening before settling him in his bed for the night.

One rainy day, the pious son was walking to synagogue when he saw a drunkard lying on the street with dirty rainwater gushing down on him.

Some kids thought the scene was hilarious and were pelting the man with stones and stuffing garbage in his mouth.

A wretched sight indeed.

The son couldn’t help thinking that it could so easily have been his father being subjected to this ridicule and abuse. The scene was so shocking that he thought perhaps it would persuade his father to sober up.

“Father, there is something I need you to see,” he urged, as he led his father to where the pitiful drunkard lay.

“Look at this man,” said the son. “This is what they do to you when you are intoxicated. Does this not make you sick?”

The father stared pensively at the man on the street, and the son dared to hope his plan had worked.

But then the father went over to the drunkard and asked: “Friend, tell me, where did you get such great stuff?”

The son was crestfallen.

“Father, I brought you here so you would see what a disgrace you cause yourself when you get drunk.”

The father responded: “For me this is paradise. It’s the only thing that gives me pleasure.”

A few years ago, a somewhat similar situation was presented to a leading halachic authority in Israel, Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein.2

A young man was troubled by his father’s habit of reckless driving. The father thought nothing of speeding or driving through red lights – and wearing a seat belt was out of the question.

The son repeatedly begged his father to drive more safely, but the father’s response was always the same: “I am an experienced driver, and I know how to be safe.”

One day, the young man encountered the site of a near-fatal car accident. On the ground lay the wounded, being administered first aid treatment.

The son ran home and brought his father to the scene of the accident.

“You see, dear father,” said the son, “this is what happens when people don’t drive carefully. You need to stop taking such high risks.”

Afterwards, the son began having doubts about his behavior: did he have a right to chastise his father? And was it right to take someone to gawk at the site of such distress?

In his ruling, Rabbi Zilberstein referred to the Midrash about the pious son. From the pious man’s actions, it would seem that it was permissible for the son to take his father to the scene of the car crash, even though it is not normally respectful to look at people in acute distress.

For if a life would be saved by being brought to a crash site, then we may assume that the wounded would forgive the invasion of their privacy.

But there was one problem: The pious son’s plan had failed, and the father remained a drunk.

There is a well-known Talmudic teaching: “Just as it’s a mitzvah to guide someone if they will listen to guidance, it is equally a mitzvah not to do so if they will not listen.”3

Rabbi Zilberstein determined that since the father had ignored the law and the danger for so long, there was little chance of him changing his mind now, and it was therefore futile and inappropriate for the young man to keep on his father’s case.

There are wonderful treatments for people who are addicted to destructive behaviors or substances. However, they require willingness to change. When that is in place, anything is possible. But if not, no amount of haranguing will help.

In such an instance, it is best to be both humble and honest, admit our limitations, and place our trust in G‑d, Who will keep us and our loved ones safe.