Parashat Va'et'hanan

Whom Should You Honor?

Although relationships between parents and children are complex, our honor for our parents should remain unwavering.

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Talmud, Kiddushin 31b–32a attempts to explain what constitutes respect for one's parents and what constitutes honor. The discussion takes as its point of departure the fact that the verb used in both Exodus and Deuteronomy as part of the Ten Commandments is "honor," whereas in Leviticus it is "respect."

The talmudic discussion notes that respect is observed by not standing in the parent's usual place, not sitting where the parent normally sits, not contradicting the parent's words, and not interfering in a parent's dispute with others. Rashi comments upon this text by noting that a child should not side against his or her parent. We can understand this to imply that the word "respect" means to be aware of and sensitive to one's parents' psyches and emotional wellbeing.

An example from our tradition of what Rabbi Wolf means by "doing changes everything" can be found in the following story from Talmud, Kiddushin 31a. It once happened that there was a young man who fed his father fattened chickens, but when his father asked from where they came, the son replied, "Old man, old man, shut up and eat, even as dogs shut up when they eat." Thus, even though the young man provided plenty of fine food for his father, he did not inherit a portion in paradise.

There was another young man whose work was grinding wheat. When the king sent word that millers must be brought to work for him, the young man said to his father, "Father, you go to the mill to grind in my stead, and I will go do the king's work. Should there be humiliation in it, I would rather be humiliated and not you; should there be flogging, let me receive the blows and not you." Thus, although he made his father grind in the mill, the son inherited the Garden of Eden.

Our argument recognizes that no one, not even God, can command the emotions of another. We feel what we feel. But appropriate and proper behavior--that is another matter. We honor our parents because it is they who gave us life. If they are lovable, we also love them. But whether or not they are lovable, we must honor them.

This is not just a matter for young children but a concern for children of every age. The relationship between parents and adult children is a complicated subject. Since honor and respect for parents are not particularly natural responses on the part of children, this may be the very reason why they had to be commanded. On the other hand, the rational use of parental prerogatives is not always guaranteed. In fact, the Talmud (Mo-ed Katan 17a) says that those who strike their adult children are placed under a ban.

The reality that we are not perfect and may have ambivalent feelings about our parents is part of our human condition. While it is possible to think that our love for them may wane, we cannot allow honor to follow that same path. "Do I not, for example, accept the notion of unconditional love with regard to my children? And what is 'unconditional love' if not a love that proceeds from ascription rather than deserts? If I can try and provide unconditional love for my children, then why not unconditional honor for my parents?" (Leonard Fein quoted in Broken Tablets by Rachel Mikva, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT, 1999, p. 66)

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Rabbi Lawrence W. Raphael

Rabbi Lawrence W. Raphael is the Senior Rabbi at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, California. Previously, he was the first Director of the Department of Adult Jewish Growth at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations from 1996 to 2003.