Talmidav Shel Aharon
12-5767 Mitzvah 42
January 22, 2007
Mitzvah 42 – It is a positive commandment to have a reverent fear of one’s father and mother.
Hafetz Hayyim: As it says in Scripture: “Every person shall fear his mother and his father.” (Lev. 19:3) Now, what is the reverent fear meant here? One is not to stand or sit in his (the father’s) place; he is not to contradict his words or express a deciding opinion about his words; nor is he to call him by his name either during his lifetime or after his death, but is only to say “My Father, my master”. The father and mother are both equally in importance entitled to honor and reverent fear; and Scripture equated in importance the honor and reverent fear due them with the honor and fear due the blessed G-d. If someone transgresses this and is disparaging about reverent fear for them, he disobeys a positive commandment, unless he acts by their knowledge. If a father is willing to forgo his honor, it may be overlooked.
It applies everywhere and at every time, for both men and women.
I do not like the translation of the Hebrew word “Yireh” as “fear” although that is a common translation. When it is used in a context like this, I prefer to translate it as “awe” it is true that there is a certain amount of “fear” when we are truly in “awe” of something, but it is not the same kind of fear as the Hebrew word “Pachad” implies, meaning “scared or afraid”. The Torah requires us to stand in awe of our parents, and that, I think, explains a lot about what this Mitzvah is all about.
Last time we spoke about treating our parents with respect and honor, now the Hafetz Hayyim deepens this relationship. Our parents, in this modern world, do not have the power of life and death over us any more. Perhaps we don’t look at G-d that way anymore either. Still, we need to treat our parents (and G-d too) as if that power were still in their hands. Even as an adult, we owe our parents every privilege we can muster. If our parent says this is what we should do, than we follow their command. We should not argue with them, ridicule their opinions nor treat them with any disrespect. They should be addressed as our parents, Mother and Father, and not to become too familiar with them and use any other name (unless we have “loving” names that we call them and that they prefer to hear from us). In no case is it every permissible to call them by their first name in their presence.
Note also the permission given for parents to forgo this kind of awe. If a parent chooses to have a different kind of relationship with their children, they are free to set the boundaries where they please. The children do not set this for their parents, but the parents can set this tone for the family. Jewish law recognizes that every family can be different and that a parent has the right to set the policies of the family.
I don’t think that there is anything here that would be unusual in the relationship between parents and children unless, and this is a big unless, there is something seriously wrong between them. Jewish law places the responsibility for the relationship squarely on the shoulders of the parents, they set the rules and boundaries. The children must follow those parameters. But what happens when the parents are abusive, either physically or verbally? What happens when they are not worthy of the fear and honor Jewish Law requires? A child must not obey a parent who gives a command that is illegal, immoral or against the rules of the Torah. Our obligation to G-d may be similar, but G-d is still more important than a parent. A child may not publicly insult or disobey a parent, but in private, one must take pains to explain why, what the parent is asking is impossible and what compromises must be made. If the parent insists, the child can walk away from that situation rather than court arrest or the destruction of his or her reputation. If the parent chooses to press the issue in public, other will have to rebuke the parent for their actions. This does not, however, remove the responsibility that children have to care for their parents health and welfare. Again, in cases of abuse, the child can hire others to help with this requirement, but the child can not just walk away. In cases where the relationship is extremely toxic, a Rabbi should be consulted.
These laws apply to everyone and at every time, no matter if the parent is living or dead. Our obligations to our parents never expires.
B. Horowitz and L. Levitan both refer to a point that I missed. B. Horowits writes:
Thought: Some people might wonder why G-d needed to include a commandment to honor one’s parents; isn’t it something we would normally do anyhow? The implication is that the command is necessary precisely because the treatment of parents often left much to be desired — so much so, in fact, that it was even necessary to offer a reward to motivate people to observe this mitzvah! – “Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your G-d has commanded you, that you may long endure, and that you may fare well, in the land that the Lord your G-d is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 5:16)
However, I read that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel turns the issue around a bit, saying: “In so many cases, it is the parents who make it impossible for the young to obey the Fifth Commandment. My message to parents is: ‘Every day ask yourselves the question: What is there about me that deserves the reverence of my child?’”
L. Levitan makes the same point noting that this is only one of three Mitzvot that promise long life for those who obey.
Rabbi Konigsburg replies: Who am I to argue with A.J. Heschel? This is a very complex Mitzvah, as complex as the relationships we have with our parents. It is so easy to say “My situation is different” and I think this is why the stakes are so high and the reward is mentioned. Yes, we do need to do more for our parents. I only think about the many who have abusive parents who come to me looking to disown their parents. So much mental illness comes from children still trying to please a parent who will never be pleased. Judaism lets us limit the damage a parent can do, but we can never turn our backs on them.
The Rabbis, always alert to nuances in the Bible, noted that while the fifth of the Ten Commandments says “Honor your father and your mother . . .”, the subject of the mitzvah in this week’s blog says “. . . fear his mother and his father.” Why does father come first in the fifth commandment and mother come first in this week’s mitzvah? The Rabbis said that honoring one’s mother was natural but honoring one’s father was not, so father comes first in the fifth commandment. On the other hand, fearing (or standing in awe of) one’s father was natural, but not so for the mother, so mother comes first in this week’s mitzvah. I have always wondered why the Rabbis felt this way, and perhaps they have given their reasons but I am simply not familiar with them, but I remain curious about this to this day.