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The Beginning of Thanks

Parshat Yitro February 17th & 18th, 2017

The Beginning of Thanks


This week’s Torah portion, Yitro (Jethro) contains perhaps the most famous part of the entire Torah: The Ten Commandments. A quick review:


1. I am the L-rd your G-d who took you out of Egypt 6. Do not Murder
2. Do not have any other gods other than G-d 7. Do not Commit Adultery
3. Do not take His name in vain 8. Do not Steal
4. Keep the Sabbath Day  9. Do not Give False Testimony
5. Honour your Parents  10. Do not Covet Another’s Possessions


Jewish tradition points out that the first set of five commandments reflect man’s relationship with God, whereas the latter five focus on man’s relationship with his fellow man. (I will now pause to give you a moment to check that out with the above list…) Ah, you may have noticed that the only exception to this rule seems to be the fifth commandment of honouring parents which is out of place and ought to be on the “people to people” side. Unless of course, this is precisely the point that the Torah is trying to get across; namely that honouring one’s parents is intrinsically and even moreso connected to our relationship with God than it is to our fellow man. How so?
Too often people, especially young and not so young children, are under the impression that the reason we honour our parents is primarily dependent on how great we think our parents may or may not be. We think we should show respect, love and deference proportional to the degree that they fulfilled our every whim and to the degree that they have been there for us. But this is not Judaism’s take on it and honour and respect for parents really has nothing to do with our assessment of how good or how bad of a parent they are or were.


How much time Dad spent playing ball with us, how well Mom or Dad understand us and feel our pain, how sensitive they are to our emotional and other needs – none of these have anything to do with this mitzvah. The commandment is mainly associated with the simple fact that they gave us life – nothing more and nothing less – and not necessarily related to what kind of job of parenting they may have done or are doing. Indeed some commentators even state that one is still obligated to honour a parent considered a rasha, a bad person. (It doesn’t mean you have to visit them weekly, but that when you are with them, you must treat them with respect. It is a separate discussion that is too individual in nature to discuss here.)


Welcome to your life

There’s no turning back

-Tears for Fears

While I can fully appreciate that this is not such an easy notion to digest, especially for those who have been pained by their parents – which is probably everyone on some level – there is still plenty of room for honor nevertheless. 

Imagine that someone gave you a gift of $100 million. Yup, just like that, they decided to turn around and give you a lottery’s worth of winnings. Wow! Your life would be instantly and dramatically transformed from what it has been up until now. Now let’s say that this donor of yours had some irritating character traits. You know, like doesn’t always listen to you, calls you up at inopportune times, maybe even insults you here and there. I ask you, would you really care if that person who just gave you all that money was always polite to you? Would it annoy you if they did not have the most acceptable habits, or acted old-fashioned, or couldn’t navigate the latest iphone? If they were rude to you and even laid on the occasional guilt trip, would you not bite your tongue and hold yourself back from letting the frustration pass your lips? How upset would you really be if they moved a bit slow and couldn’t hear you so well that you had to repeat yourself two or three or four or even five times, or even if they completely forgot conversations that you had the previous day? Would you really lose your cool with your hundred-mil benefactor when these moments arose? Would you talk back to them and tell them how ridiculous they are for making demands from you like taking them to the doctor, or making your own bed, taking out the garbage or (gasp!) cleaning the kitchen?


So I ask you, what is more valuable – a hundred million dollars or your life? 


This is why this mitzvah appears in the left column of the Man-God mitzvot. Because the beginning of our relationship with God starts with having gratitude for life itself. Indeed this is the very first thing we say when we awaken every morning. Modeh Ani… – “I give thanks before you, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.” (Can’t remember all that? NP, then wake up and just say, “Thank God I’m alive!”)
Showing our parents their due honour and respect is the most essential expression of showing gratitude to God for the life He has given us. If we cannot have this simple and obvious appreciation to God – and to our parents – for the very life that we have received from them, then how meaningful can our lives truly be? Treating parents cheaply and without dignity and honor becomes a reflection of how much dignity and honor we give to our own lives and how much we regard its preciousness.

Little kids sometimes say, “I didn’t ask to be born!” No, you didn’t ask to be born, and you may not have asked for $100 million either, but if someone came along and dumped that money in your lap, you surely would treat that person differently than anyone else on the planet. Similarly we are obligated to recognize the most precious commodity that our parents have given us and treat them with the proper appreciation and reverence they deserve. When a person does so, they set for themselves a benchmark of gratitude that makes it much easier to truly appreciate and enjoy all of the gifts that one has received from others – beyond our parents – and from God. 


I want to thank you

for giving me the best day of my life


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