This week’s Torah portion, Yitro contains perhaps the most famous part of the entire Torah: The Ten Commandments. A quick review:
- I am the L-rd your G-d who took you out of Egypt
- Do not have other gods other than G-d
- Do not take His name in vain
- Keep the Sabbath Day
- Honor your Parents
- Do not Murder
- Do not Commit Adultery
- Do not Steal
- Do not Give False Testimony
- Do not Covet Another’s Possessions
Jewish tradition points out that the first group of five commandments reflects man’s relationship with God, whereas the latter five focus on man’s relationship with his fellow man. We will now pause to give you a moment to confirm this 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 looks out of place and ought to be on the “people to people” side. Unless this is precisely the point that the Torah is trying to get across. Namely, that honouring one’s parents is intrinsically and even more 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 honouring our parents depends 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 are there for us in our times of need. But this is not Judaism’s take on it and honour and respect for parents really has very little 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 you, how well Mom or Dad understand you and feel your pain, how sensitive they are to your emotional and other needs – none of these have anything to do with the basic premise and reason behind this mitzvah. No, the commandment is mainly because of the simple fact that they gave us life. Nothing more and nothing less. It’s 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. (Navigating that is a completely different subject altogether for another time.)
While I can fully appreciate that this isn’t 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 honouring them nevertheless.
Welcome to your life
There’s no turning back
-Tears for Fears
Imagine someone gave you a gift of $100 million. Yup, just like that, they decided to 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 gave you all that money was always polite to you? Would it annoy you if they didn’t have the most acceptable habits, or acted old-fashioned, or couldn’t navigate the latest iPhone and repeatedly asked you how to use it? 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?
You see where this is going, right? What’s more valuable – a hundred million dollars or your life? We all know the answer to that. Your parents gave you life. This guy gave you just a 100 million bucks.
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 to 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 declare, “Thank God I’m alive!”
Showing parents their due honour and respect is the most fundamental expression of showing gratitude to God for the life He gives us. That is why the Talmud states that there are three partners in the creation of every person: Mom, Dad and God.
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 our most precious commodity of Life given to us by our parents and treat them with the proper appreciation and reverence they deserve.
When a person does so, they set for themselves a benchmark of gratitude for all the other good they have in life. Indeed, if you see someone treating their parents with disdain, good chance that they’re pretty self-absorbed and treat others in a similar fashion.
Honouring parents for the gift of Life is the beginning of our appreciation and ability to enjoy the myriad of gifts that one has received from others – parents and otherwise – and ultimately to recognize the gifts we receive from God בכל יום תמיד every day, and at every moment.
There’s a room where the light won’t find you
Holding hands while the walls come tumbling down
When they do I’ll be right behind you