As Jews, we are innately attuned to spirituality. When we appreciate that idea, it’s no longer surprising that so many of us are tempted to reject the values of our parents.
Dama ben Nesina lived in Ashkelon. Once, the Sages sought to purchase precious stones from him for the breastplate of the High Priest for six hundred thousand gold dinars’ profit. But the keys to the chest holding the jewels were placed under his sleeping father’s head, and he would not disturb him. So they lost out on the sale.
The following year, a red heifer was born in Dama’s herd and the Sages of Israel approached him, seeking to purchase the cow. Dama said to them, “I know that if I were to ask all the money in the world, you would give it to me. Now I am requesting from you only that amount of money which I lost by refraining from waking my father.”
Rabbi Eliezer exclaimed (A”Z 24a), ‘If this non-Jewish fellow was willing to sacrifice so much to honour his father – even if it meant not disturbing his sleep – we must constantly ask ourselves how our behaviour towards our parents matches up in comparison!’
אִתְּמַר: רַב חִיָּיא בַּר אָשֵׁי אָמַר רַב: בֵּין לְנוֹי בֵּין לְשַׁמֵּר — אָסוּר. וְרַב חִיָּיא בַּר אָבִין אָמַר שְׁמוּאֵל: לְנוֹי — אָסוּר, לְשַׁמֵּר — מוּתָּר. מֵיתִיבִי: קְשָׁרָהּ בְּעָלֶיהָ בְּמוֹסֵרָה — כְּשֵׁרָה. וְאִי סָלְקָא דַעְתָּךְ מַשּׂאוֹי הוּא, ״אֲשֶׁר לֹא עָלָה עָלֶיהָ עוֹל״ אָמַר רַחֲמָנָא! רָבָא אָמַר: שָׁאנֵי פָּרָה דְּדָמֶיהָ יְקָרִין
שאני פרה דדמיה יקרין. במס’ ע”ז בפרק אין מעמידין בהמה (דף כ”ד) אמאי דמיה יקרין הואיל ושתי שערות פוסלות בה
(Background: Just like man must cease working on Shabbat, so too must his animals. Thus, an animal may not carry into the public domain. But is a strap considered carrying?)
Rav Chiya bar Ashi quoted Rav: Whether the strap was placed for adornment, or whether it was placed to secure the cow, it is prohibited. And Rav Chiya bar Avin quoted Shmuel: For adornment, it is prohibited; however, if it was placed to secure the cow, it is permitted. The Gemara raises an objection from the following law: If its owner tied a red heifer with its reins, it remains fit for use in the purification ritual. And if it should enter your mind to say that a strap is considered a burden, why does a red heifer remain fit for use? The Torah explicitly stated: “Speak to the children of Israel, that they bring you a red heifer without defect, in which there is no blemish, and upon which never came a yoke”. Rava said: A red heifer, whose monetary value is high, is different.
Rav Nissim Gaon: In Tractate Avoda Zara, chapter Ein Maamidin (p.24), the Gemara states, “Why is a red heifer expensive? Because if it displays so much as two white hairs, it is invalidated.”
Rav Nissim Gaon offers the story of Dama ben Nesina in Tractate Avoda Zara as evidence of the expensive price of a red heifer. The Gemara tells the story above and then proceeds to describe the process of procuring a red heifer, which combined elements of nature and nurture. Nevertheless, the Gemara concludes that only certain herds had the genetic qualities to issue red heifers, one of which was owned by Dama’s family.
Take a step back and ask yourself what Dama was thinking. Here, he was presented with the opportunity to make a small fortune with the sale of the precious stones his family had in their possession. Logically, if you were the father, would you not have desired to be woken in such a situation? He could always go back to sleep later. Was it really so wise and honourable to forego such a profitable transaction just to catch a few extra winks?
The Maharal explains (Kiddushin 31a) that the Gemara uses a non-Jewish young man as the gold standard of parental honour for good reason. In our people’s tradition, the honour accorded to biological parents does not always come so naturally. Given our focus on the spiritual dimension of life, biological connections may be superseded by spiritual connections. The Maharal offers an extreme example: If you were to see two people drowning – your father and your Torah teacher – who would you save first? The Gemara dictates that the Torah teacher takes preference, because “your father gave you life in this world, but your Torah teacher gives you eternal life in the World to Come.”
In fact, continues the Maharal, who is the epitome of parental honour in the Torah? Not Yaakov, but his brother, Esav. The child who does not follow the spiritual heritage of his parents is nonetheless the model of the mitzvah of honouring parents. But, in fact, that is the reason for this role-reversal. If you are focused on this world, then respect for one’s biological parents who gave you the gift of this world is paramount. If, however, this world is but a “corridor” preparing us for the World to Come, then your biological parents were merely participants along the way, but not necessarily the key players in your spiritual journey.
Given the logic of such reasoning, the Torah must go to great lengths to emphasize the mitzvah of honouring one’s parents. It’s so important that it appears in the Ten Commandments. Not only does it appear on the Tablets of Stone, but the mitzvah features on the side dealing with our relationship with the Almighty. It is precisely because honouring our parents might not happen organically that the Torah gives the mitzvah such prominence and emphasis.
The moral of the story of Dama is that we must honour our parents even when it seems illogical. The Gemara uses this non-Jewish fellow as the epitome of such an attitude, because parental honour is more organic for those who are focused on this world. The punchline of this particular episode is that the young man demonstrated that the transaction and exchange was a two-way street. While we were learning parental honour from his dedication, he learned how dear mitzvos and spiritual pursuits are to us. And so, at the end of the story, he declares that all the money in the world is not worth the mitzvah that he performed. In other words, he would prefer to be rewarded in the World to Come, as the God promises His people for fulfilling this mitzvah, “in order that you should prolong your days.” Our length of days refers to the prolonging of eternal life.
The Sages assumed that this fellow would have chosen financial reward, hence his name Dama (from the Aramaic word for money) ben Nesina (giving) from Ashkelon (the city of shekels). But Dama showed himself to be motivated by more than the temporary rewards of this world. He understood that parental honour must be more than just an organic certainty. It’s a mitzvah, a Divine, non-negotiable commandment.
It’s not always easy to honour your parents. They might be difficult or even abusive. But we don’t respect our parents because they’re nice to us. We honour them because Hashem commanded us to do so. If it doesn’t always feel natural, there’s a reason for that. As Jews, we are innately attuned to spirituality. When we appreciate that idea, it’s no longer surprising that so many of us are tempted to reject the values of our parents. It also explains why so many Jews have been at the forefront of radical ideologies and movements. By our very nature, we seek to progress to a sense of self-fulfillment beyond mere accident of birth.
The challenge is to balance our natural and supernatural tendencies. We must honour our parents and utilize their values as a foundation for our own personal spiritual journey. True, they may not necessarily hold the keys to the World to Come, but had they not brought us into this world, we would not have made it to the starting line! If you have any appreciation whatsoever for what this world has to offer, then you remain eternally indebted to your parents for providing you with those opportunities. Whatever pain they have caused you comes nowhere near outweighing the gift of life they have given you!
Every mitzvah is a challenge and an opportunity. If it came naturally, then there would be no need to make it a mitzvah. Just like Dama, may you be an inspirational example of parental honour!