Commentary on Parashat Yitro, Exodus 18:1 - 20:23
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.
Jewish Identification Comes From Parents
Even in those families where the child’s Jewish commitment is more consuming or elaborate than that of the parents, the core of the child’s identification as a Jew is still a product of who the parents are and of the nature of their family and friends.
If parents are so central, then why doesn’t the Torah or the Talmud mandate the love of parents? The lack of such an imperative is the result of a recognition that there is no relationship as complex, multi-layered and deep as that between a parent and child. Experiences of total dependency, of complete rebellion, of increasing similarity are all commonplace between the generations. Spouses can divorce, and friends can separate, but a parent is forever.
Given this overwhelming variety of feelings–due to the overwhelming variety of relationships–that each individual has with each parent, it would be impossible to reduce that bundle of feelings to any one emotion. The entire range of human passions applies between parents and child. But only a narrow range of behavior is healthy and appropriate.
For all these reasons, then, Jewish tradition places a great emphasis on kibbud (honor) and yirah (reverence) towards parents. As the people to whom we owe life itself, as the people who provided years of care, and as transmitters and links to Judaism and the Jewish past, our parents merit our honor and respect.
Provided by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis at the American Jewish University.
Pronounced: KHAH-luh, Origin: Hebrew, ceremonial bread eaten on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.
Pronounced: MITZ-vuh or meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, commandment, also used to mean good deed.
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.