Ancient Wisdom In Honoring Parents

          In the western society today, honoring one’s parents has not only become an archaic and obsolete concept, it is also frowned upon and deemed valueless by some.  The consumerist society and high value on individualism have acculturated one to think and act selfishly with little or no room for the consideration and preference of others, not excluding one’s very own parents.  Sadly, the Christian body has not escaped the non-observance of this God-ordained commandment that originated in the heart of a loving God.  God, in His divine wisdom, has designed for his people to reap great benefits by honoring one’s parents.  This article takes a look at what God’s plans are for this commandment, what the Torah, Talmud, Jewish Rabbinic sayings, and ancient wisdom have to impart to us in our modern context.

The Fifth Commandment

          In the Ten Commandments one reads, “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12). However, trying to wrap one’s mind around the word honor can be difficult. What does honor mean? Why not love instead of honor? Is it unconditional honoring? Are there limits or is it boundless? Why is it so important?  The word for honor in Hebrew is “Kibbud”; in Yiddish it is "Koved", and both carry the meaning of revere. It also means weight - an honor is heavy.[1] The Sifra, a collection of midrashim (early Jewish interpretation of or commentary on a Biblical text) on the book of Leviticus, explains that to revere one’s parents means that one should not sit in their chair, speak in their place, or contradict their words. It is further written in the Sifra that one is to provide parents with food and drink, clothes and warmth, and to guide their footsteps when they are old and frail.[2]  Besides keeping positive behavior, to revere includes refraining from certain behaviors, including not contradicting one’s parents publicly.[3]  Furthermore, the practice of honoring begins early. A traditional education requires that children learn never to call their parents by their first name. Instead they say "avi mori, my father, my teacher, or imi morati, my mother, my teacher."[4]

           It is also interesting to note that the fifth commandment not only made its way into the top ten laws, it is on the right tablet, the side concerned with the relationship between God and us. The first commandment states, "I am Adonai, your God." The second is, "You will have no other gods before me." Third, "You will not make a graven image Me nor of any living being." And fourth, "You will keep the Sabbath."  And then, "You will honor your father and mother, that you may long endure on the land that Adonai your God will give you." One would expect it to be on the left tablet with its laws concerning how humans do business with each other: don't murder, don't commit adultery, don't steal, don't lie, and don’t covet. On the contrary, it is found right after the law to keep the Shabbat. The first four commandments deal with laws between man and God.  The last five deal with laws between man and man.  This mitzvah (commandment) bridges the gap, but it is classified as a commandment between man and God, not man and man.[5]  This poses a difficulty, for most people would classify honoring one's parents as the latter. Conceptually, one is being taught that he should view serving his parents as a vehicle towards serving God.  One may love his parents very much and feel eternally indebted to them, but the essence of honoring them lies in the concept that one should view his service to them as essentially a manifestation of the way one ought to serve God.[6]  Thus, one’s relationship with his parents can impact his relationship with God.  Just like one must honor God regardless of what one sees in the world; so too, the honor due to his parents approaches that level. The tradition acknowledges the difficulty of honoring our parents.  First of all, there is the natural phenomenon of taking things for granted.  Parents give so much that one becomes accustomed to the gift. One needs to remember to honor their acts of kindness, most especially the gift of life. The habit of honoring parents teaches one the practice of gratitude for everything. 

          Moreover, the fifth commandment teaches how the tradition will be transmitted: from generation to generation.[7]  One honors his parents by following the path they passed down.  Parents are the first human beings one learns to honor. From that relationship one learns how to honor others. Since each individual is created in the image of God, one gives honor to God when he honors another.  Understandably, parents are the link to a person’s ancestral history. Parents respond to a child’s needs; comfort and fed him, and from them one learns compassion, love, and trust.  In addition, everyone has three parents, two who are earthly, and the third – God, who created the entire world.  Mothers contain a child until he is viable physically to survive. God pushes him from the womb, and the father provides the shelter he needs to grow. They all nurture, teach, command, and cajole a child. When there is honor and respect between parents and children, God dwells between them. If one dishonors one of our parents it is tantamount to dishonoring God.[8]

          It is also interesting to note that in the commandment, the word “mother” is written first followed by “father.” Some people point out that the Torah contains both these versions of this commandment in order to show that one needs to treat his parents equally, that neither mother or father should come first in our honor or reverence for them.[9] Often, children give their mothers greater honor than their fathers and, likewise, they fear their fathers more than their mothers. Mothers are the nurturers who give of themselves often without regard to their personal needs or wants. Fathers are usually the disciplinarians in the family; they command a higher-level respect or more aptly, fear. How often do mothers say to their unruly children, "wait till your father gets home?" The Torah therefore juxtaposes their roles - honor your father and fear your mother.[10]

          Fascinatingly, this is one of the few commandments that offers a reward; if one honors his parents, he will have longevity: "Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.”  So many eschew fat, sugar, and exercise for this gift, and yet here is a clear guide that suggests that one would be better off in monitoring his filial relationships rather than diet to live long. Why does one suppose this will bring him long life?  Understandably, no commandment comes naturally. As parents age, they require more time and care, and conceivably, that requires more patience and one may resent it. To understand that one will experience the same thing when he grows old may cause him to be more sympathetic and caring. It will also set an example to his own children to help him in his old age.

What About Undeserving Parents?

           It may be valid to ask, "What about the girl who gave birth to her baby at the high school prom and dumped him in the garbage? Does he have to honor his mother?" How can children be expected to perform the mitzvah in cases where a parent has not fulfilled their role properly; e.g. a parent abandoned a family, a mentally ill parent, or a parent who is abusive to their family? Can a child really be expected to observe the mitzvah under such circumstances? 

           The law is unconditional. The rabbis called it the most stringent. It doesn't apply only to deserving parents, because it is less about one’s parents than about him. When one honors his parents, it is not only about his relationship to them but how he sees himself. One honors his essence when he honors those who have given him uniqueness.[11] Abraham Joshua Heschel (famous Jewish Rabbi) writes, "In spite of the negative qualities they may discover in their fathers, children should remember the most important thing is to ponder the mystery of their own existence. If I do not have reverence for the mystery of my existence, regardless of the special faults of my parents, I'm simply not human."[12]

          The Talmud teaches the extremely far-reaching extent of the law: Even if one is holding a bag of coins and the parents come and tosses them into the sea, one is still not permitted to be angry with them; one must still must give them honor.[13]  In addition, the Talmud tells the story of an idol-worshipping Gentile named Dama son of Nesinah.  This man was once sitting, dressed in a fancy, golden cloak amongst all the distinguished nobleman of Rome. Along came his mother and she ripped his garment off him, hit him on the head, and spat in his face.  While doing this, her slipper fell off. Dama then immediately handed her the slipper so that she would not suffer any distress.[14]  By today's standards one would consider Dama's mother either mentally ill or else emotionally abusive. And still the Talmud suggests that there is an obligation to honor such a parent.  Why does the Torah give a commandment that is seemingly impossible to keep? Can one realistically hope to achieve the level of even an idolater like Dama son of Nesinah?  The answer to these questions lies in a conceptual understanding of this mitzvah.  In many places the Talmud literally compares the honor one must give to the parents to the honor one must give to God.[15]

          The commandment is also a challenge because it encompasses a relationship that has ranged from complete dependence to rebellion, and then alienation in its search for a balance of power. When once a child loved his parents more than anyone else in the world, now when he is grown up he separates from them. However, when one no longer needs his parents is when he needs to remember the commandment.[16] The rabbis understood a great psychological truth in the language of the commandment. Rambam teaches that it is possible to honor and revere and obey those whom one does not love or respect.[17] Gur Aryeh ha-Levi, a seventeenth-century sage understood the commandment to apply primarily to a parent's last years, typically the most demanding and least rewarding.[18]  Society dismisses the elderly who are no longer of use and are a drain of resources.

         In codifying the laws of honoring one's parents, Maimonides records that even if parents throw a child's money into the sea in front of the child, the child must still honor the parents. But then Maimonides adds the following statement: Asur le-adam le-hakhbid olo al banav - it is forbidden for a parent to make the burden too heavy on the child.[19]  While it is true that the obligation to honor a parent is gargantuan, it is also true that the parents have an obligation to help their children perform the mitzvah.  Parents have an obligation to act in a way that merits respect; otherwise they will be literally leading their children into sin.

          Now that one understands that it is ordained by God to honor one’s parents, however, what happens when a parent just becomes too much to handle? Under those circumstances, the child should leave the area and pay others to honor the parents on his behalf.  The obligation to honor the parents never disappears. It is a reflection of the commandment to honor God.[20]  But if a parent acts in a way that desecrates the name of God, then the child can remove himself from the situation.  He still must honor his parents, but he can do so from a great distance.[21] Obviously, this law is not easy.  Every case is unique and extremely nuanced.  All of the obligations are immense.  But ultimately proper performance of this mitzvah is an essential element of the path to Hashem (God).

           The Talmud tells another story about Dama son of Nesina.  The rabbis were once searching for special jewels for the Kohen Gadol. They knocked on Dama's door and asked if they could purchase the jewels from him.  He said: "I'm sorry I can't sell them to you now.  The key to the safe is under my father's pillow and my father is still sleeping."  The rabbis went on their way and Dama lost the sale.  A year later, Dama's farm produced a Red Heifer--a very rare and priceless animal.  The rabbi came to Dama and begged him to sell them the Red Heifer at whatever price he wanted. The Red Heifer is the essence of spirituality in the Temple.  God blessed an idolater with this animal because Dama might not have known the laws of Judaism but he understood the mitzvah of honoring one's parents.  He understood that the path towards the deepest form of spiritual service of God connects with the way one honors his parents.[22]

The Biblical picture is again amplified with an excerpt from Ben Sira …

          My son, honor your father in word and in deed,

          So that his blessing may attend you,

          For a father’s blessing establishes the houses of his children,

          But a mother’s curse uproots their foundations.

          Do not glorify yourself by dishonoring your father,

          For your father’s disgrace is no glory to you.

          A man’s glory arises from honoring his father,

          And a neglected mother is a reproach to her children.

          My child, help your father in his old age,

          And do not grieve him as long as he lives.

          If his understanding fails, be considerate

          And do not humiliate him when you are in your prime…

          He who deserts his father is like a blasphemer,

          And he who angers his mother is cursed by the Lord…

          Honor your father with your whole heart

          And do not forget the pangs of your mother.

          Remember that it was of them that you were born,

          And how can you repay them for what they have done for you?

                                                            (Ben Sira 3:8-16; 7:27-28)[23]

            Nevertheless, it is important to highlight that if a parent demands that one transgresses a commandment for them, claiming that the Torah demands to "honor your father and mother," then the Torah says that is unacceptable. A parent who asks his or her child to transgress one of Hashem's commandments as a sign of respect is unfairly jeopardizing the spiritual development of their child.[24]

           The Torah also teaches us that one shouldn't think that honoring one's parents is like paying back a debt. Most parents spend a small fortune on clothes, food, schooling, medical and dental expenses for their children. However, the Torah doesn't obligate respect of parents out of financial conscience.  One is obligated to honor one’s parents as God commanded. Just as this commandment was given in the desert and the normal process of child welfare had not yet occurred, so too one must give honor to his parents with no strings attached. Honor for the sake of honoring them and God, not as a repayment for the generous care that they provided.[25]  One of the main traits necessary to raise children properly is patience. Often, especially today with extended health and life expectancy, "children must develop patience with parents." As they get older, they often become dependent on their children. This can lead to strife in a family that has to care for elderly parents. A healthy spiritual relationship between parents and children during the years when the parents are robust will assuredly be continued when parents can no longer take care of themselves. The Torah demands this by legislating the duties not as a display of kindness, or, out of a sense of pity or duty, but as an expression of honor and reverence to parents and, therefore, also to Hashem.[26]

Conclusion

             The phenomenon of both aging and the caring of the elderly in our culture is a very challenging one. In the past, in a Jewish world governed by the traditions of Torah, the elderly were a most venerated and prized population. When seeking wisdom and guidance, the Torah advises: "Ask your fathers and they will tell you and your elders, and they will inform you."[27] Those advanced in years were respected for their life's experience. They were considered a most valued resource, held in high esteem and cared for accordingly.

            Today, we live in a society that worships youth. Moreover, today's nuclear family, already stressed by the demands of maintaining the American standard of living, which requires two incomes, leaves precious little energy -- financial or emotional -- to embrace an elderly parent.  Understandably, in this context, elderly parent will, perforce, feel very vulnerable. Their perception will be one of having outlived their usefulness. Not only are they not productive or contributing members of a society that has declared them past their prime, now they have to confront the terrible possibility of becoming a burden to their children.

            It is said that no one can be told too many times that they are loved. That is certainly the case for parents in the sunset years of their life. Additionally, one needs to realize that no matter how difficult and 'burdensome' parents may become, they are exclusively (with the exception of pathological relationships) the only source of unconditional love for us. In a sense, it is payback time. In retrospect, one will be comforted and proud of the energy and time expended on a parent's behalf. Nobody and nothing will ever be able to take that away. The knowledge of having, to the best of our ability, appropriately honored one’s parents accompanies and warms him forever. "Honor your father and mother" is relevant for today just as it was in the past. Just as they provided care when one was young and demanding, so one must do no less for them, for as long as one can without harming himself. This includes giving them food and drink, clothing them, and escorting them if they need it.  Honoring is expressed through positive acts; keeping them in one’s life even if he lives far from them. Seek out their opinions and advice. Let them know by visits and calls that they are cared for and thought of.  One’s relationship to his parents guides him towards our third Parent, God.  One honors his parents by the way he lives his life and in the way he includes them in his adult lives. One honors them by the fruit of one’s honor and respect for God and for others.  May one live to be worthy of his parents' efforts and hopes.

            Honoring our parents is attitudinal. It flows from our attitude and love for God, which in turn impacts our attitude, love, and honor for our parents.  God promises us blessings of success and longevity when we honor our parents. We will do well to live out this ancient wisdom.

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honor your father and mother,” which is the first commandment with promise: 3 “that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.” (Ephesians 6:1-3)

May you be blessed with success and long life,

Cornelius


[1] Abraham P. Bloch.  A Book of Jewish Ethical Concepts: Biblical and Postbiblical (New York: KTAV, 1984), 123.

[2] Richard E. Friedman. Commentary on the Torah (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), 238.

[3] Avraham Y. Finkel. The Torah Revealed (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 119.

[4] Arthur Hertzberg.  Judaism (New York: Braziller, 1961), 97.

[5] Norman C. Gore. Tzeenah U-Reenah: A Commentary on the Book of Exodus (New York: Vantage, 1965), 134.

[6] U. Cassuto. A Commentary on the Book of Exodus (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1974), 246.

[7] Adin Steinsaltz.  The Essential Talmud (New York: Basic, 1976), 26.

[8] Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, 248.

[9] W.G. Plaut. The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York: Union, 1981), 554.

[10] Laura Schlessinger.  The Ten Commandments (New York: Cliff, 1999), 77.

[11] Bloch, Ethical Concepts,125.

[12] John C. Merkle. Abraham Joshua Heschel (New York: MacMillan, 1985), 70.

[13] Judah Goldin. The Living Talmud: The Wisdom of the Fathers and its Classical Commentaries (New York: Heritage, 1957), 68.

[14] Jeffrey L. Rubenstein. Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins, 1999), 269.

[15] Dagobert D. Runes, The Talmud of Jerusalem (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956), 89.

[16] Schlessinger,  The Ten Commandments, 78.

[17] Travers Herford R.  The Ethics of the Talmud: Sayings of the Fathers (New York: Schocken, 1962), 156.

[18] Ben Zion Bokser. The Talmud: Selected Writings (New York: Paulist, 1989), 122.

[19] Charles B. Chavel. The Commandments: Sefer Ha-Mitzvoth of Maimonides Vol. 1 (London: Soncino, 1967), 178.

[20] Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, 555.

[21] Gore, Tzeenah U-Reenah, 135.

[22] Rubenstein, Talmudic Stories, 272.

[23] John G. Snaith, Ecclesiasticus or The Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach (London: Cambridge University, 1974), 81.

[24] Finkel, The Torah Revealed, 121.

[25] Friedman, Commentary on the Torah, 240.

[26] Friedman, Commentary on the Torah, 241.

[27] Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, 556.