December 15th was my mother’s 76th birthday. Being a bit of a sentimentalist and, I would hope, a loyal son, I never forget this date. It is the time at least once a year, although there are many other occasions as well, to honor my parents and I do so with a phone call, flowers and any other gift which I know will bring them joy.
But in Jewish law, this is not truly honoring them.
The Hebrew word kavod in Exodus 20:12 , where the commandment to honor one’s parents first appears – does not really mean honor, which is a poor English translation. A better translation would be dignity.
How do we know this?
Often to understand the meaning of one word in the Torah , we need to make reference to the same word used in a different context in another part of it.
In this instance, the Hebrew word for “honor” (ka-ved) consists of the same letters as the Hebrew word for “heavy” (ka-bed). The only difference is a dot in the second letter.
This could be said to mean, that “honor” should be understood as treating one’s parents with the gravity (heaviness) that their position demands. It is interesting to note that, the Hebrew opposite of “honor” is “kalel.” The word is always translated as “to curse,” but its literal meaning is to make light of (from the Hebrew “kal,” light). One curses one’s parents not only if one directs curses at them, but, indeed, if one treats them lightly.
In a Talmudic commentary this same word is used to state that human dignity is extremely important. Therefore, in Jewish law the true meaning of the word kavod is associated with dignity rather than honor. Thus, the commandment is to dignify one’s father and mother – or to keep their dignity – as in feeding them, clothing them, and helping them come in and out of their homes, outweighs what in English we would know as ‘honor.’
But this is not the only reference to treat our parents with dignity in the Torah. In Leviticus 19: 3 there is the verse ” You shall fear your mother and your father.” In the Talmud “Fear” is defined as not sitting or standing
in a parent’s designated place and not contradicting a parent, while they are speaking. This akin to what we would refer to in English as respect.
Dignity and respect. Not quite the same understanding of honor we generally attach to the word.
It is of course interesting that the Torah teaches us to ‘honor/ dignify/respect our parents but not to ‘love’ our parents. Unusual, because other commandments admonish us to ” Love thy neighbor as thyself,” “Love the stranger,” “Love God with all your heart …”
Why no love for parents?
The answer is that love for a parent cannot be commanded. It is instinctive, as we witness anytime we see a child with his or her mother. G’d has built that instinct into our genes – there is no need to think about the rightness or wrongness of love for a parent. There is therefore no need to ‘command’ love.
That love flows instinctively from a child to his or her parent is exampled by the early life of Winston Churchill. Churchill’s life from his birth until almost his 18th year was spent in the care of nannies or at boarding schools. His parents, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Randolph Churchill and his bon vivant socialite wife Jennie, paid him almost no attention and saw both their children as little as possible since they were seen as hindrances to their upward social mobility.
Yet Churchill maintained an adoration for his missing parents which defies almost all explanation. In his 30s he wrote a glowing biography of his father extolling his virtues while mentioning none of his many faults and came to see his flighty mother as his most important adviser and confidante in his developing political career.
But while most children instinctively love their parents, that instinct can be diminished over time. Some parents have been cruel to their children, some have abused them, some have done things in their own lives that makes a child ashamed. Love that might be instinctive can also be crushed by experience.
I was reminded of this by two encounters I had on the very same day I celebrated my mother’s birthday.
On that day I spoke with two friends who shared with me the reality of their own family lives. Both had fathers who had recently passed away. In the first instance, the father had gone through a bitter divorce with the mother many years before, splitting the family in two. My friend told me that her father hadn’t spoken to either her brother or sister for 20 years and they, when notified of his passing, demonstrated no sign of grief. She too had not spoken to either of her siblings for the same length of time. The family had effectively ceased to exist.
My other friend told me that he was the only one of his three siblings who had maintained a relationship with his father who had similarly divorced their mother three decades before. When he died they had no interest in attending the funeral or dealing with any other details regarding him. My friend was left alone to deal with the estate and tidy up his father’s personal affairs.
I had to think of the early lives of these rebellious progeny who so despised their parent(s) that that they could not bring themselves to say goodbye or even attend their funerals. There is no doubt in my mind that they did not always feel this way and that their natural instincts for love had in some way been smothered.
It is doubtful that any commandment could have made these children now love their parents.
So it is here that the commandment to dignify and respect the parent, particularly in old age, when they are infirm and cannot fend for themselves, has its purpose and fills in where love is no longer possible.
This was certainly the case of my two friends who reached out, unlike their siblings, to their fathers in their old age, lending forgiveness for whatever sins they had perpetrated, and offering solace in their last days.
The notion that human beings are imperfect and can make ruinous mistakes is central to Judaism. It dovetails with the notion of gratitude -an acknowledgement that we owe our very existence to a force outside our own beings – and to two forces in particular who united to form us.
Therefore we acknowledge that for whatever our parents’ sins, whatever their errors, whatever their failings, we must, in the end, attempt to forgive them in order to help them in their infirmity and through their final days. For they are responsible for having granted us the greatest gift of all – the gift of life. We may no longer all have the capacity to love them, but we can dignify and respect our parents and prevent them from passing out of life forgotten.
While many quote the fifth commandment as an admonition to honor parents, they forget or ignore the second part of the same commandment – “so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.” We should note that this is the first commandment to appear with a promise attached. It is further emphasis that our lives are not separate from our parents’ lives but a continuum. It suggests that in this continuum in which we, ourselves, would wish for a long life, so we must wish it for those who gave us life.
In this respect ‘ Honor Thy Father and Mother’ stands as not just a commandment for cementing the bond between a parent and a child, but for securing the very survival of the human race itself.