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Why do we need to honor our parents?

You might ask, unhealthy what is the question? Who knows what’s good for a child better than their parents? But it’s no so straightforward. The commandment to “Honor your father and your mother” is not directed at a young child, but to an adult who is obligated to keep the mitzvot. Perhaps there are those who believe (mostly children…) that the commandment to respect your parents ends with the bar-mitzvah celebration, but in truth, it is the opposite.

Let’s imagine, for example, a middle-aged individual who has a family of his own, and might even be more astute than his aged parents?they are worldly and sophisticated, but his parents belong to the old school. Nonetheless, even in such a case, one must always respect parents. We must take care of our parents as they grow older, address them respectfully, never calling them by their first names, etc., etc. This is a particularly relevant situation in our day and age when many ba’alei teshuvah (returneees to God and His Torah) have rebelled against their parents approach to life, yet nonetheless, respect them.

True, honoring one’s parents is an accepted social norm in almost every human society, and the sages even offer one example of a non-Jew who behaved respectfully towards his father (Damah ben Netinah[1]). Nonetheless, since this practice has been permanently sealed as a mitzvah?in the Ten Commandments, no less?we can study the reasons for the mitzvah and delve into its depths.

First, let’s note the location of the mitzvah. The Ten Commandments are clearly divided into two halves, the first five commandments, written on the right hand tablet of the Tablets of the Covenant, and the second five, on the left side. The first five commandments deal mainly with commandments between man and God, such as belief in God, “I am Havayah your God”; the prohibition against idolatry, “You shall have no gods besides Me; Shabbat, “Remember the Shabbat day.” The five second commandments are devoted to commandments between man and his fellowman: “Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not falsely testify against your fellowman. Do not covet…”

Yet, the commandment to honor one’s parents appears at the end of the first five commandments, which implies that it belongs to the commandments between man and God! On the other hand, the fact that it concludes the commandments between man and God alludes to the fact that this commandment serves as a transition between these commandments and the commandments that relate to man and his fellowman.

Gratitude

Let’s now turn to the greatest commentators to reveal a variety of ways to explain the commandment of honoring one’s parents. Here is what Sefer Hachinuch has to say:[2]

The roots of the mitzvah are that one should acknowledge and do acts of kindness for one who does him a favor, and he should not be an ungrateful, neglectful villain, which is an extremely evil and despicable trait before God and mankind. He should pay attention to the fact that his parents are the cause of his existence in the world, therefore it is truly essential for him to do everything in his power to respect them in every way, because they brought him into the world and they exerted themselves in various efforts when he was a child.

Simply put, a good person is one who knows how to be appreciative of the kindnesses that people do for him, and not ungrateful. Since there is no kindness greater than that which parents have granted their children, honoring one’s parents is simply a matter of good human relations. However, the Chinuch continues:

Once he has established this trait in his psyche, he may elevate it to realize the Almighty’s kindness, for He is his cause and the cause of his forefathers back to the first man, Adam. He has brought him into the world and supplied him with his needs his entire life and structured his composition and perfected his limbs, and has given him an intellectual, understanding soul. And if God had not graced him with his soul he would be like a horse, a mule that does not understand. And he should meditate upon how very much he should be careful in His service.

The essence of this teaching is that someone who is grateful towards his parents will know how to be grateful towards his Creator.

Indeed, although gratitude is the basis of all good human relationships, there is something unique in the gratitude expressed by honoring one’s parents. Whereas regular gratitude might be perceived on a fundamental give-and-take level of relationship whereby if I express gratitude for the kindnesses people do for me, then others will relate to me accordingly. This implies that in fact the person only has their own best interests at heart, and would gladly relinquish the tedious obligation to express thanks every time someone does him a favor. By contrast, honoring one’s parents is a far more correct and suitable type of gratitude?it’s good to live with a sense of reliance and dependency and to express our gratitude to those to whom we will always be indebted, even when they no longer have the power to help us. Therefore, this mitzvah is a custom built bridge that connects between human relationships and the relationship between man and God. It is good to feel dependent on God, to thank Him at every moment for the gift of life that He grants us in His loving-kindness, and obviously, to perform His will and His commandments.

Tradition! Tradition!

Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel finds another reason for the commandment of honoring one’s parents:

The foundation of this mitzvah is so that the parents’ conveyance should be important in an individual’s mind and he should believe in it and rely on it. And since the power of this commandment to believe in the conveyance of one’s predecessors?which is an all-inclusive principle in the Torah and no reality can be imagined without it?therefore this commandment is included in the five Divine commandments on the first tablet, and is not one of the humanitarian commandments that are on the second tablet.

In simple words, the Torah is founded on “conveyance” (????????), i.e., “tradition.” Without a living tradition that transmits the Torah from generation to generation, we would not observe the Torah, nor would we believe in it. This tradition is transmitted via our parents and respecting our parents means respecting their heritage. This is how Abarbanel explains why this mitzvah is written on the first five “Divine” commandments, which deal with the relationship between man and God, and not in the second, “humanitarian” commandments, which deal with regular human relationships.

Does this opinion hold that honoring one’s parents is only a commandment between man and God? Taking a more detailed look, we see that it is an “intermediary” between human relationships and man’s relationship with God. This is because the commandment to honor the conveyer of tradition did not appear from nowhere, but developed, as it were, from the correct human relationships which are supposed to exist in every human society. After all, our Jewish parents don’t only transmit folklores, but provide the child with a fundamental value system. Moreover, our parents were the first to bring us into contact with the concept of authority – therefore any good social system must be built on the foundation of a sense of respect towards one’s parents as representatives of heritage, authority and hierarchy. One might say that this is the meaning of, “Good manners preceded the Torah”[3]; initially, respecting one’s parents was “good manners,” but now, since the revelation of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, parents are the bearers of our special Jewish heritage, the heritage of the Torah, “Moses commanded us the Torah, a heritage for the congregation of Jacob.”[4] Therefore, our respect for them should be more sophisticated.

Our First Father and our Last Father

In his commentary on the Torah, Nachmanides reveals an even deeper level to this mitzvah:

This [mitzvah] completes everything that we are obliged in the words of the Creator in and of His own honor, and it now continues to command us regarding the creations and it begins with the father, who for his offspring is like the Creator who participates in his formation; for God is our first Father and our parent is our last father… as I have commanded you in My honor, so I command you to honor the one who is a partner with Me in your formation.

Nachmanides’ interpretation implies that the parents themselves serve as an intermediary between the Creator and His creations. “There are three partners in the creation of a child—the Almighty, father, and mother.”[5] The parents supply the physical body while God supplies the soul. Yet, despite this division of realms, the body hosts the soul, and the Almighty does the incredible feat of connecting the two.[6] This is why even the parents’ role in the partnership also represents the Divine part. If one contemplates only oneself, then life appears to be obvious. It’s quite clear to me that I exist. But if we broaden our scope to include our parents, who brought us into the world, we can sense the incredible wonder of our life as something that was created from the Divine nothingness. In addition, we also realize that our beloved parents are our “last father” in the chain that is headed by our “first Father,” the Creator Himself.

Three Connections in Honoring One’s Parents

We have seen three different explanations of the mitzvah to honor one’s parents. If we were examining this in a detached, rational way, we might suffice with that. Indeed, a so-called “objective” researcher, loves finding differences of opinion and presenting a variety of approaches.

But, learning Torah cannot conclude there, because it is a “living Torah” with which we identify and which we observe. So, what does one do when the same mitzvah has a number of different reasons? Which do we take home to work with?

One might say that everyone should choose whichever explanation he finds easiest to integrate. Some feel that they belong to the school of the Sefer Hachinuch, others might go to study at Abarbanel’s yeshivah, while others will stoop beneath the broad shade of Nachmanides’ umbrella. However, a deeper approach is to inter-include all the different interpretations to form a mosaic that connects them all into one complete tapestry. The latter approach is that of the Torah’s inner dimension, the ability to incorporate different (or even opposing) ideas into one scheme.

In our current context, we will use two familiar “triplets” that correspond to the three explanations that we have learnt. One well-known idea from the Zohar states, “There are three connections, the Jewish People, the Torah and the Almighty. The Jewish People connect to the Torah and the Torah connects with the Almighty.”[7] This triplet is woven into our entire world?there can be no Torah without God, there is no Torah without the Jewish People, and for the Jewish People, life without the Torah is not a life.

Now we can see that the Sefer Chinuch emphasizes the “Jewish” aspect of the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents?for us, our parents are the most significant Jews who we come into contact with. Abarbanel’s interpretation deals with the Torah’s perspective, as it were?it is thanks to our parents that we receive the Torah’s heritage. Nachmanides’ interpretation deals with God’s angle?our parents are the rope that connects us with God, our first Father.

Looking at the mitzvah in this way allows us to accept all three interpretations at once, without forgoing any of them! In fact, combining all three in this way completes the whole picture. Nonetheless, even after each explanation has its place within the whole picture, it may certainly be that each individual still chooses the one example that appeals to him most, each according to his way and to his soul-root (as in “Educate a youth according to his way”).[8]

My Sweet Parents

The second triplet that comes to our aid are the three basic terms that the Ba’al Shem Tov introduced, which have become a basic tenet of Chassidut (even though they were relatively unknown until relatively recently). According to the Ba’al Shem Tov every proper process in God’s service is comprised of three basic stages, submission, separation and sweetening.[9] Our context supplies a ready explanation for these three concepts:

We begin with a sense of submission. The first words a Jew says when he wakes up in the morning are “I thankfully acknowledge You, living and enduring King, for You have compassionately restored my soul within me.” You just opened your eyes and you are living and breathing? Don’t be ungrateful! Know how to say thank you.[10] This should also be our initial relationship with our parents: know how to thank those who brought you into the world and brought you up (as in the Sefer Hachinuch’s explanation). From this perspective, honoring our parents educates us not to be egoistic and arrogant, but to recognize the fact that we are dependent and reliant.

Having initially submitted ourselves in this way, we now come to the stage of separation. Once I am prepared to surrender myself to God, with an initial sense of the fact that I am inconsequential and that I have a lot to rectify?I begin to distinguish more and more between good and evil, and to identify which path should be avoided and which to adopt. This is how it is with honoring one’s parents: we realize that our parents are the ones who gave us our first value system to distinguish between good and evil—prohibited and permitted, truth and falsehood—and through them I receive my Jewish heritage (as Abarbanel explains); the tradition of the Chosen People who God gave the Torah to.

Once we have gone through the stages of submission and separation, we can move on to the sweetening stage. In our service of God, after toiling to separate the bad parts of myself, and to identify with the good parts, I eventually begin to see how they all give rise to something good and how everything has a positive side that eventually sweetens reality. With regards to our parents: beyond the all-important sense of gratitude towards them, and beyond the unrelinquishable chain of tradition that they transmitted to me, I look straight at my parents and realize that as they are, for me they are God’s representatives on earth (as Nachmanides explains).

Then we realize that God is our Father (and to a certain extent, even our Mother[11]) and not for naught did He create us by means of our two parents via who we get our first glimpse of the world. God chose to reveal Himself to us as a “Father” figure, and as such, my own father means everything to me. My “final Father” who brought me into the world reflects my “First Father”; everyone’s sweet Father in Heaven.


[1] Kidushin 31b.

[2] Mitzvah 33.

[3] See Vayikra Rabah 9:3.

[4] Deuteronomy 33:4.

[5] Niddah 31a.

[6] See the Rama’s note on Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 6:1.

[7] Zohar Vayikra 73a.

[8] Proverbs 22:6. The complete verse reads, “Educate a youth according to his way and even when he grows old he will not budge from it.” In our context we can interpret this to mean that initially, one follows the way that best suits the youth, one of the many possible paths of the Torah that he might choose. Later, when he has grown older and wiser, he can realize the interinclusion of all the different possible paths. Yet, even at this stage of life, he will not budge from his original approach because he still has a penchant for it because it is something that belongs to his soul-root.

[9] Keter Shem Tov 28. For an expansion on this subject, see our book, Transforming Darkness into Light.

[10]  The initial letters of “Know how to say thank you” (???? ?????? ???????) spell out the name of the letter dalet (??????), which alludes to lowliness (???????).

[11] For example in the verse, “As a man whose mother comforts him, so I will comfort you” (Isaiah 66:13).

2 Responses to “Honoring Our Father and Mother”

  1. benjamin says:

    Thank you for a deeper understanding on such an important action.

  2. Silvana Origlia says:

    Maybe we don’t have families which are really of our own, beginning with us, but everything begins with our Sweet Parents and with Their Sweet Parents and so on. Honouring them, this seems to be more a need of heart than “just” an arid duty. Maybe there is even a difference between Sweet Parents – those Angels of our childhood that we never forget and who remain impressed in our souls similar to a Holy Scripture – and “only”traditional correctness of behaviour towards Parents; the Sweetness remains always the same or becomes even greater, nevertheless they change physically and then, after a long time, leave us and we don’t know exactly where. Sweet lacking Angels.