What is the goal of our halachic responsibilities to our parents? Even though it may be difficult to evaluate the primacy of certain mitzvot over others, there is ample evidence of the primacy of this specific mitzvah:
- The Torah included the mitzvah of honoring parents as one of the ten “dibrot” (loosely defined as “commandments”).
- The Midrarsh Tanchuma (Parshat Ekev #2) describes this mitzvah as “chamura she-ba-chamurot” – the most weighty mitzvah.
- The gemara in Masechet Kiddushin 30b which equates the honor due to parents to that due to God Himself.
How do we observe the mitzvah of honoring parents? The gemara in Masechet Kiddushin 31b provides examples for two Torah obligations due to parents, “kibud” and “mora.” Examples of “mora” include not standing in a parent’s fixed place, not sitting in his or her fixed place, not contradicting a parent’s statements by expressing an opinion contrary to that of the parent, and not choosing sides when one’s parent argues with someone else. Examples of “kibud” include providing a parent with food and drink, dressing and covering a parent, and bringing the parent in and take the parent out for all of his or her household needs.
What emerges from these examples is that the mitzvah of kibud is to provide a physical benefit to a parent and the mitzvah of “mora” is not to act in a disrespectful manner towards a parent. According to the strict definition of the gemara, even though we must not act disrespectfully towards a parent and we must take care of his or her physical needs, we have no halachic responsibility to lead our own lives based on his or her desires. According to the strict definition of the gemara, the choice of community, marriage partner, level of religious observance and profession is our choice. (In a future blog we may challenge this assumption, but this statement seems to be true according to the strict definition of the gemara.)
If, indeed, our life choices are our own and cannot be imposed by a parent, then what does that say about the goal of our halachic responsibilities to our parents? It is true that our parents hopefully guide us to live a moral, ethical and halachic life, but that goal seems unconnected to the mitzvah of “kibud” or “mora.” Rather, there seems to be two primary goals of “kibud” and “mora:”
- Strengthens our relationship with God: The gemara in Masechet Kiddushin 30b writes that there are three partners in the forming of a person: God, the father and the mother. Additionally, when a person honors his or her parents, God ascribes credit to them as if He dwelt between them and they honored God, as well. It is challenging to give honor and respect to a being that we cannot physically see or hear. When we demonstrate our respect for our roots and for those who created us, then we will hopefully train ourselves to respect our ultimate Creator, i.e., God.
- An expression of gratitude: The Sefer Ha-chinuch (mitzva 33) writes that “it is only appropriate for one to recognize and reciprocate kindness to those who have dealt kindly with him… One should appreciate the fact that his parents are the source of his very existence in this world, and it is therefore appropriate for him to act as respectfully and beneficially as he can. Besides having brought him into the world, they also expended tremendous effort in raising him as a child.” Additionally, the Chayei Adam (vol. 1, 67:1) formulates a child’s obligation towards a parent as a repayment of a debt that the child owes the parent for the good things that the parent has provided for the child.
Our halachic responsibilities towards our parents do not preclude us from making our own life choices; however, these responsibilities help train us to strengthen our relationship with God and to live lives of gratitude. Perhaps now we can understand why this mitzvah made it to the Torah’s “top ten list” of the ten dibrot. The values of strengthening our relationship with God as an authority figure and living lives of gratitude are so fundamental to acting as Torah observant Jews.