Why Honor the Old Man?

Honor your father and your mother, in order that your days be lengthened on the land that the Lord, your God, is giving you. [Exodus 20:12]
The thunder roared and the lightning illuminated Mount Sinai. The Israelites were below hearing the Ten Commandments. The first three were all about G-d. The next was on the Sabbath.
Then came the fifth commandment: “Honor your father and your mother.”
Wait a minute, not a few of the Israelites told themselves. I can understand not dissing the divine force that could strike me dead with one bad look. But my old man? Are you talking about the guy who was a slave in Egypt. Nobody respected him. They just kicked him around like an empty can, and he did nothing to stop them.
Not all the commentators in our weekly Torah portion of Yitro respond. But those who do focus on the relationship between G-d, parents and children. G-d is the ultimate father, joined by the biological parents. All three are partners in the child. The same way you respect G-d you must respect your parents. The children are not being asked to love, rather respect.
Moses Ben Nachman defines the criteria: If you respect your parents, the results are unimaginable. The Torah promises you will stay forever in your land. Can simple respect bring all this? You bet your life.
What is respect demanded by the Torah? The Talmud in Kedushin lists how one honors their parents. It comes down to acknowledging the presence of mother and father, respecting their space and catering to their basic needs, whether physical or emotional. Gentleness is the key. The behavior of the parents, whether normal or psychotic, plays no role in the commandment, which also extends to grandparents, stepparents, older siblings and parents-in-law. If you can’t deal with your needy parents for more than a few minutes, bring in somebody who can.
Revolutionary movements have long opposed the Fifth Commandment. They call on their disciples to abandon their reactionary parents and make their adopted ideology their god. From its roots in the late 19th Century, modern Zionism denied G-d, Judaism and vilified tradition. During the British mandate, David Ben-Gurion would challenge Jews to a debate over the legitimacy of the Torah. Ben-Gurion, then chairman of the Jewish Agency, would even enter religious communities in Jerusalem ready for a confrontation.
As with everything in history or life, this was not coincidental. Ben-Gurion was born David Green in the Russian city of Plonsk, today Poland. Like just about every Jewish kid, he was studying in Heder, or a Jewish elementary school, where he chanted prayers and Mishnayot. At 12, tragedy struck, and David’s mother died. His father took him out of Heder and enrolled him into a Russian state school. The senior Green, who represented illiterate gentiles in government offices, was convinced this would help his son adjust to the changing world.
Within weeks, David’s father, Avigdor, was shocked. David’s skullcap was gone; so were his fringes. The new bar-mitzvah boy refused to don phylacteries. Father and son quarreled, and Avigdor slapped David. That was it. Years later, David changed his name to Ben-Gurion, fled the czarist police and resettled in the Land of Israel, then under Ottoman rule.
For 20 years, David, as he rose up the Zionist ladder, refused to have anything to do with his father except to ask him for money. He made sure than Avigdor would not receive an entry visa to the Land of Israel. This, while war, pogroms and famines raged throughout Poland. When Avigdor finally arrived in the British mandate of Palestine in 1925, he was shunted off to Haifa, far away from Ben-Gurion’s playground in Tel Aviv. [1]
Ben-Gurion’s leading associate, Moshe Shertok, was also committed to the Zionist revolution. But he respected his father, Yaakov, who died when Moshe was 19. The junior Shertok, later Sharett, the second prime minister of Israel, did not share Ben-Gurion’s hate for Judaism. Although avowedly secular, he fasted on Yom Kippur and his diary contains admiration for Torah and its traditions.
But Ben-Gurion set the tone. In the new Zionist world, parents meant nothing. They represented the ugly ghetto Jew, useless and hated by all. The kibbutz dictated that a new-born be taken away from his mother and raised by strangers. The parents could see their child perhaps an hour a day. The rest of the time he belonged to the kibbutz and the Zionist movement. Most parents, dependent on kibbutz jobs and housing, were scared to complain. Until a few years ago, virtually all military commanders, many of whom entered politics, began life this way. It would be hard to exaggerate the consequences of a leadership that never experienced parental love for the security of the State of Israel.
The sages say that respect for parents lead to respect to elders, ordinary people and the Almighty. Disrespect to parents results in the opposite. Dismissing your loved ones and their heritage produces a vacuum, filled by materialism, nihilism and restlessness. Without an anchor, the individual is adrift, frustrated and angry.
The life of Abraham Ben Meir Ibn Ezra could only be described as tragic. Today, we know the Ibn Ezra as the leading commentator, poet and philosopher of the Middle Ages. But death and destruction trailed his every step. Four out of his five children died young, and the last one, Issac, converted to Islam. By that time, the Ibn Ezra left his home and spent the rest of his life wandering through Europe, Asia and Africa. For the first four years, his companion was Judah Halevi, the famed Spanish poet and physician, 14 years his senior. When Judah died in 1141, the Ibn Ezra kept going for nearly 30 more years.
In our Torah portion, the Ibn Ezra mulls over the commandment of honoring parents, something of which he experienced little. Like the Ramban 150 years later, Abraham sees this as much bigger than the individual. The divine requirement was not just about an old man dozing off in his chair. Instead, the commandment foretold the destiny of Israel.
“When Israel observes this commandment they will not be exiled from it [Land of Israel],” he writes.
1. A State at all Cost. Tom Segev. [Hebrew edition] Pages 27. 32. 115-116. 196. Keter, Jerusalem. 2018
About the Author
Steve Rodan has been a journalist for some 40 years and worked for major media outlets in Israel, Europe and the United States. For 18 years, he directed Middle East Newsline, an online daily news service that focused on defense, security and energy. Along with Elly Sinclair, he has just released his first book: In Jewish Blood: The Zionist Alliance With Germany, 1933-1963 and available on Amazon.