Parents Make It To The Top Ten
The placement of the commandment to honor our parents in the midst of the Ten Commandments highlights the complex ways in which parents serve as our bridge between God and the world.
Provided by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis at the American Jewish University.
Each of us is descended from parents. Without exception, a man and a woman were involved in your inception and birth, and generally in your childhood, teen years and early adulthood as well. How are we to respond to these people; how should we adjust to our own increasing powers of understanding, physical strength and financial ability in the light of the gratitude and respect we owe our parents for the care we received at an earlier age?
Owing Them Honor
That we owe our parents honor and reverence is a 'given' in Jewish tradition. The mitzvah of kibbud av va-em (honoring the father and mother) is the Fifth Commandment of the Aseret Ha-Dib'rot (the Ten Commandments), standing halfway between the first four--dealing with the Jewish relationship with God--and the last five--establishing standards of social morality. That placement speaks of the insight that parents represent a bridge between God and the world, between our own personal drama of Creation and our entry into the world of human interaction and expectation.
The Talmud teaches that three partners are involved in the birth of every person--God, mother and father. One of the roots, then, of our obligation to honor our parents is their role as a pre-eminent source of life. Parents represent God, not only for their role in our inception and birth, but also on a psychological level.
Parents teach, through their raising of children, that the world is reliable and basically good. Each time a mother comforts a screaming baby, each time a father offers a bottle to a hungry infant, the child receives a concrete lesson that they are not abandoned in a meaningless void, that needs are met, that compassion and love are real and potent. In nurturing their children, parents establish the emotional base for a subsequent relationship between their child and the Sacred.
As we would expect in any instance where we are given a gift without having earned it, showing gratitude is an integral part of a child's relationship to parents. No one does something to deserve being born. Each of us is gratuitously created and nurtured for countless hours, through illness, temper and the normal self-absorption of childhood.
As adults ourselves, we honor parents as a demonstration of gratitude for those years of unearned service. There is also a specifically Jewish component to honoring parents. These people provide the tangible link to our sacred past and our covenant with God. The childhood memories of lighting Chanukah candles, the smell of warm loaves of challah on a newly-set Shabbat table, the joy and love of a Passover Seder, all of these connections to our Jewishness are through our parents and grandparents.