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Parashat Mishpatim

February 18, 2009

Enid C. Lader

In last week’s Torah portion, we were commanded to “Honor your father and your mother…” [Ex. 20:12] As we recall the mitzvah, we usually stop with these six (in English; five in Hebrew) words. But, wait; there’s more! The verse continues: “… that you may prolong your days on the land that the Lord your God is giving to you.” This appears to be teaching us that respecting our parents is connected to long life. It is even more importantly teaching us that obligations toward our parents are directly related to our relationship with God. Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman, writing in That You May Live Long: Caring for Our Aging Parents, Caring for Ourselves, suggests that “… clearly the connection to God underscores the importance of the mitzvah. Perhaps the text draws an analogy between our obligations to parents and our obligations to God… That the promised reward is long life suggests that caring for parents fits into a system of intertwined relationships. We care for our parents in the hope that we will be blessed to live to a ripe old age and that we will be cared for by our children when we reach that point.”

The Fifth Commandment tells us to “honor” our parents, but it does not give details of what kavod – honor – is. Twelfth century commentator, Ibn Ezra, wrote that “… by honoring your father and mother, you also honor God.” A bit later, Nachmanides, writes that “… our verse does not make explicit the nature of this honor, for it can be derived from what we know about the honor due to God: A son must acknowledge that his father is his father, and not deny him… and he must not swear falsely by his father’s name…” BT Kiddushin 31b describes honoring one’s parents as “… giving [one’s parent] food and drink, clothe and cover him, and lead him in and out.” Kavod involves providing for our parents’ material and concrete needs. Kavod is not a feeling – it is a behavior.

But what happens when that behavior goes awry?

In our Torah portion, Ex. 21:15 and 17 teach what not to do… Well, the Torah does not say “Do not…,” but does give the punishment for what happens when one strikes one’s father or mother… or when one insults [or curses] one’s father or mother: “… he [or she] shall be put to death.” Rashi teaches that verse 17 specifically says “One who insults…” – implying punishment for both a man and a woman. Nachmanides suggests that insulting, or cursing, invokes the name of God, and the son or daughter is punished simultaneously for insulting his/her parents and for taking God’s name in a sinful way. I, personally, cannot even imagine this kind of behavior; but, alas, I know that it exists (in the words of Torah) “to this day.”

What kind of life can one have if a person strikes or verbally abuses one’s parents? It cannot be good for him – and it cannot be good for his parents. At the least, it is living with constant bickering and, at the worst, it is a life of physical and verbal abuse. No one should have to live that kind of life.

But, there are desperate situations that can call for desperate actions. And at those times, it is important to have a safe place to go, and a listening ear to which one can turn. We are called upon to respect our parents, but when there is abuse, when the relationship is bereft of reciprocal respect, then it is important to get the help needed to make sure each gets the protection he or she needs. The medieval rabbis understood this, and in Sefer Chasidim Par. 343 (Margaliot ed., p.257) we read:”It is best that a father and son separate if they quarrel with each other, for much pain is caused; and I do not mean only the pain of the father…, but even the pain of the son.” Joseph Caro, author of the Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh De’ah 240:18) states that a parent’s sinful behavior does not limit a child’s obligations, yet Moses Isserles in his gloss on the text, suggests that a child is not obligated toward a parent who has transgressed laws or limits and failed to take responsibility (“repents”) for his or her actions.

On this Shabbat we pray that each and every home will become a place of Sh’lom Bayit – domestic peace – and that the prophet’s vision (Malakhi 3:24) will come to pass: That parents will be reconciled with their children, and children reconciled with their parents. And what an honor for all that will be.


Enid C. Lader is a rabbinical student at AJR.