This week we read about the giving of the Torah and the declaration of “the ten commandments.” As they are the building blocks for moral societies and religions, we often take these essential commandments for granted- believing that they are straightforward and elementary mitzvahs.
However, their concise wording is very vague and thus opens up a sea of discussion to define the parameters of each command and capture its reasoning. The first is perhaps the most mysterious, seeming to be more of an introduction that an instruction. Each of the subsequent commandments provokes its own questions. For example, what constitutes adultery, murder? Does honoring parents depend on whether they are worthy? What if they are abusive? What constitutes “work”, and “rest”, on the Sabbath? Here is where the oral tradition, the Talmud’s contribution, comes into play.
In this discussion, we will focus on one commandment and the general rationale behind it. To begin, there are several well known systems of categorizing the mitzvahs. A most basic distinction is between private acts (concerning G-d and man), and interpersonal relationships (man and man.) Within the two tablets, the first five comprise commandments between man and G-d, while the next five involve instructions concerning one’s fellow man. (In fact, G-d’s name is not even mentioned.)
This organization is clear when it comes to all but one. The fifth commandment- the mitzvah to honor parents- doesn’t seem to follow the pattern; it seems to be placed on the wrong tablet as it involves human relationships. Yet it is grouped with the first category.
The commentaries offer a variety of explanations for this, focusing on the underlying rationale; why should we honor our parents? The Sefer HaChinuch, in his characterization of this mitzvah, explains that its basis is gratitude. There is a foundational principle in Judaism called hakarat hatov (recognition of good) which states that we must remember, appreciate, and acknowledge those who have helped us in any way. [This principle extends even to inanimate objects, as we find the reason why Moses could not strike the water to incite the first plague was because, as a baby, his life was saved by placing him in the Nile.]
In our case, the Chinuch proposes that when one contemplates the investments of one’s parents from the time of birth onwards, how they nurtured and cared for us, how they clothed us, how they provided us with an education, etc. – the natural inclination will be to express gratitude. And if one instills and practices this character trait with parents, it is only logical that one will become aware of and thankful to G-d, the ultimate giver and sustainer of all life. Hence, this instruction also bears a connection to those mitzvahs between man and G-d.
Yet his rationale has some limitations. First, what if they are not the best parents? Secondly, the proposed connection to the first tablet is rather indirect. The Ramban (Nachmonides), in his commentary, offers a more direct connection and profound explanation. He suggests that the obligation to honor parents (does not simply stem from what they have done throughout one’s life) but is a recognition that they are responsible for his or her creation. This, he argues, is essentially equivalent to honoring the Creator.
Perhaps what he means by this is that the process of creating a life is the most significant wonder and miracle apparent within the natural world. The ability to create is not something earned. We merely serve as a vehicle for this process to occur. It is a time when a finite being comes in contact with a greater power, with the infinite. In this sense, giving birth is a unique act, a chance for humans to become “partners” with G-d in creation, as the Talmud states: “there are three partners in the birth of a child: the blessed Holy One, his father, and his mother.”
So in honoring parents, we honor the gift of human life—in this case our own—through acknowledging the ultimate source, and those that enabled it. In this light, the Talmud continues, “when one fulfills the duty to honor parents, the blessed Holy One says: I consider it as if I am dwelling among them, and they are honoring Me.”
Thus, the rationale for the fifth commandment comprises two distinct aspects: There is a logical reason entailing gratitude. But even when this doesn’t apply, there is a deeper reason for this command which overshadows any shortcomings parents may have, and places it on the first tablet. Parents are honored for bringing us life. From a different angle, we honor G-d granting us life through acknowledging those who exercised the power He instilled in them, and in “partnership”, brought us into being
(How one honors parents- is a subject for a different discussion!)