“You shall honor your father and your mother” – the fifth commandment and, out of all of the Ten Commandments, the one that I find elicits the most guilt from people who, for whatever reason, can’t honor a parent. The world would be a better place if some of the other commandments – like the ones about adultery, theft, murder, lying, coveting or even honoring Shabbat – elicited even half the amount of guilt many people experience when they feel they are breaking the fifth commandment.
Given that it’s one of the Ten Commandments, which we read this Shabbat, honoring our parents is a moral teaching that lies at the foundation of our tradition. In the first three commandments, we’re told to be completely loyal and faithful to God. Later on in the Torah, we’re given the command to “love God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your means.” (Deuteronomy 6:5) And just a few chapters after this, we’re commanded to love the stranger. Many people find it interesting that nowhere in Torah are we commanded to love our parents. Some see this as a slight to our mothers and fathers but love alone doesn’t make for a healthy relationship. A meaningful parent-child relationship needs to be grounded in trust and respect. From this trust and respect grows a deep and abiding love – a love that transcends familial titles and the obligations and expectations associated with these titles. The Torah teaches us that our love of God is grounded in a command. Our love for our parents, however, is grounded in choice. The way our parents raise us, hopefully, fills us with the desire to honor them, cherish them and, because of this, love them. This kind of love can’t be commanded.
Not everyone is fortunate enough to have felt the love that comes from a healthy parent-child relationship. While not included in the Ten Commandments, Judaism teaches parents that they’re obligated to honor their own children by seeing within them the holiness of God and taking the time to teach, nurture and guide them. The Midrash teaches us that the title of “mother” or “father” has nothing to do with birth – it has to do with how well a child is raised. So one has to earn their parental status and, therefore, earn the right to be honored by his/her child. Sadly, many know too well that not all parents earn this right. Yes, we are commanded to honor our parents, but, our tradition makes it clear that if a parent’s behavior is emotionally and/or physically harmful to his child, even a grown child, this child has every right to distance herself from the parent. The Talmud teaches that parents who don’t behave according to the standards set by society don’t deserve to be honored. Respect is not automatic – it has to be earned from our children.
I share this to ease the guilt that too many people have as a result of the fifth commandment. We’re obligated to behave in a certain way as children but parents also have their own obligations. Our tradition makes it clear: failure to fulfill parental obligations can undermine a parent’s right to be honored by their children.
In addition to commanding us to honor our parents, Judaism commands us to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). We can do this by having our own children, adopting children and/or having a deep impact on the children that fill our lives. This command is an important reminder to all those who struggle with the fifth commandment. We might struggle with our own parents because of how they raised us, but we get a second chance when we’re “fruitful and multiply.” We get a second chance to create a sacred parent-child relationship by respecting our children, loving them with our whole heart, with our whole soul and with all our means. And, in doing so, hopefully, we earn the right to experience the blessing of being an honored parent.