Between Heaven and Earth: The Fifth Commandment

The Ten Commandments: A series

Jewish Family Identity Forum

By Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer, July 2010

From the very first word, the Fifth Commandment — “Honor your father and your mother, in order that your days may be prolonged on the soil that the Lord your God is giving you” — raises questions. Simple questions, like what does honor mean and why does the Commandment repeat the word your? It also raises deeper questions such as why is it grouped with the God-centered Commandments and what does the reward mean?

The Torah does not command us to love, respect, or even obey our parents. Love (a feeling of tenderness) and respect (a feeling of high regard) are too easily dismissed by claiming our parents didn’t earn them, so we are freed from any obligation.

Obey indicates that we must do everything parents demand, even to the extreme. Instead, we are told to honor our parents, to show deference and courtesy to them.

Furthermore, the Torah makes it clear that this deference is to be shown equally to each parent by repeating the word your — “Honor your father and (honor) your mother.”

Like only one other Commandment (Shabbat), the Fifth is phrased as a positive obligation. The others constrain our behavior: don’t have other gods, don’t murder, don’t steal. They identify specific behaviors we are to avoid. If the Fifth Commandment had followed the same pattern — “Do not dishonor your parents” — it too would have identified only what to avoid.

But it’s not enough to simply avoid dishonoring a parent. That could be accomplished by having no interaction at all. No, we are to actively seek out opportunities to honor our parents.

The fulfillment of this Commandment actually begins with the parents, not the child.  When a dad offers a steadying arm to his own infirm parent, a mom calls her parents to say hi, and they speak respectfully about the child’s grandparents, “honor” is no longer an abstraction.

Parents also teach honor by expecting behaviors that demonstrate honor: “Offer to help mom with the groceries.” “Ask before borrowing dad’s tools.”  “Don’t interrupt.”

Yet, many parents “feel guilty about demanding respect from their children,” writes Wendy Mogel, author of the classic Blessing of a Skinned Knee. She concludes that today, “more than ever, we sympathetic, fair-minded parents need to make a conscious effort to establish ourselves as the honored rulers in our homes.”

Honoring parents is so important that its observance is rewarded: “…that your days may be lengthened…that you may long endure…that you may live long.”

David Klinghoffer, author of Shattered Tablets, offers a number of interpretations: Practically, if we take care of our parents, our children will take care of us, helping us literally to live longer.

Symbolically, the quality and meaning of our lives is lengthened (deepened) through the deference, nobility, and, sometimes, sacrifice that characterizes honoring one’s parents. Or perhaps the primary beneficiary isn’t the individual at all; instead, honoring parents ensures the continuation of society through the preservation of its wisdom, values, and beliefs.

So exactly what makes parents so special that they appear in the Big Ten, that they are treated as if they are on a pedestal, that they are paired with a reward, that they alone are honored even after death by 12 months of mourning?

The answer can be found in the very structure of the Ten Commandments. Written on two tablets of stone, the Five Commandments on the first are between people and God, the rabbis of the Talmud explain: “I am God. Do not have other gods. Don’t take God’s name in vain. Remember Creation through Shabbat. Honor your father and your mother.”

Those on the second tablet, the rabbis of the Talmud explain, are between people and people: “Don’t murder.  Don’t steal. Don’t commit adultery.  Don’t lie. Don’t covet.”

So why is the Commandment to honor parents on the first, God-centered tablet when it seems to be a people-to-people Commandment? Because parents, the rabbis conclude, are God’s emissaries on earth.

Parents are the bridge between God and humankind.  On a simple level, parents are God’s emissaries when they give birth and guide the development of a child’s relationships with God and others. This role is underscored not only by the position of the Fifth Commandment on the first tablet, but also by the identical Command throughout the Torah to “honor” both God and parents. When you honor a parent, it is as if you honor God.

Parents are also the bridge between the individual and society. It is within the family where the child learns and practices the ethics and morals, rules and behaviors necessary to function in society. Honoring parents helps the child make the leap from being an individual (the world revolves around me) to being a civilized person in society. Parents are thus God’s emissaries when they raise good people who build and maintain good societies. The message is clear that the family — not the individual, not the village — is the most important building block of a stable and successful society.

Parents are, most significantly, the bridge between holiness and justice. As explained by Dennis Prager in his lectures on the Torah, the first Four Commandments are about holiness, recognizing God and His place in the universe, while the last five are about man’s role in creating a just world.

By their position on the first tablet, parents are a sign that holiness and justice are intimately connected.

Holiness without expression in the real world is not just.  Justice without a foundation in the Eternal cannot last. By honoring parents one honors the values of holiness and justice.  Parents are the bridge between heaven and earth.

Parents are so special that the command to honor is absolute.  Aging, infirmity, or dementia don’t lessen a parent’s significance or the obligation to honor, just as the broken first set of tablets was still considered holy and treated with honor by the ancient Israelites.

Even the dishonorable parent, “the cruel, crazy, or criminal,” as Mogel writes, is to be honored, if only at a minimal level.

We cannot ignore our parents, but we can establish our own creative boundaries.

Move away. Call but don’t visit. Send a note. Provide care through a third party. There is no opt-out clause.

Candace R. Kwiatek

It is no accident that the Hebrew term for honor and heavy is the same. Honoring parents is a heavy obligation. It challenges us to discover and acknowledge the role our parents play in our lives. It demands action and encourages creativity. It puts the fate of society directly into our own hands. And it draws us a bit closer to heaven.

Family Discussion: Put your creative energies to use: list 10 ways you could honor your parents. Add another 10. Can you get to 36? Could you come up with a different way for each week of the year?

Candace R. Kwiatek is a writer, educator and consultant in Jewish and secular education.

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