The topic of parents and children, and Jewish education, is at the heart of this week’s parsha: It is, of course the 5th of the Ten Commandments: “Honor your mother and your father,” and the topic of educating children appears in the parsha in the Shema - ”veshinantam levanecha”.
So, let’s begin with a fundamental question: Why does the Torah instruct us to honour our parents?
We shall claim that the respect due to parents is not for parents. It is in actuality a critical key in raising the next generation.
APPROACH 1 - GRATITUDE
The most famous reason given for honour of parents is brought nicely by the Sefer Hachinuch:
It is correct for a person to recognize and repay in some measure, the good which has been offered to him ...A person should realize that his father and mother are the cause of his existence in this world; therefore, it is appropriate that he render them all the honor and do them all the service he can. For they brought him into the world and labored greatly on his behalf..."
In this perspective we honor parents because of a fundamental debt of thanks. They are the cause of our existence, and , hopefully they have raised us with love and care. We owe them the most basic debt of gratitude.
The Sefer Hachinuch continues:
"Once a person has adopted and internalized this trait he will rise higher to a recognition and appreciation of the goodness of God. It is He who is the cause of one’s existence and the cause of all one’s ancestors all the way back to Adam. He brought him into the world...perfected his body ... gave him intelligence...”
Appreciation to a parent has the power to engender a deeper awareness of God as the creator and sustainer of the entire universe. This might explain why this command fits in the first half of the Ten Commandments, the focus of which is the relationship "bein Adam le Makom" - the human relationship to God.
Interestingly, in a powerful reflection, Rabbi Soloveitchik has questioned whether this is purely altruistic:
"The very precept of kibbud av va-em was evolved from the deep-seated awareness of our human interdependence and individual insufficiency. The parents give a. part of themselves to the child; they rear him and supervise his growth from birth to maturity with unlimited devotion and superhuman sacrifice. It would be impossible for anyone to reach adulthood without being guided by others, usually by the parents. Sacrificial action on the part of the father and mother provides the child with the proper upbringing and education. At this stage the child is the recipient of favors, the parents the givers and doers.
Time passes on. The children grow up; the parents have aged. The tender weak child is a strong adult, physically, mentally and socially. The parents, powerful and efficient a score or two scores of years ago, are now old, feeble and helpless. They need the assistance of their child - not long ago their little baby, whom they kissed and hugged. The Judaic law states unequivocally: help thy father and mother for purely selfish reasons. The law is very practical and makes reference to our human experience. It is pragmatic and addresses itself to egotistic man: observe the law, for by observing it you are furthering your own interests. To honor father and mother and to serve them is not only a good act but a prudent one as well. The child, who finds pride and joy in his youth, strength and ability, now will have willy-nilly to encounter the experience of old age, of physical frailties and mental incapacity, and will not be able to lead an independent existence without the assistance of his children. If he will treat his parents rightly, similar treatment will be accorded to him by his children.
At this stage, the precept of honoring and fearing requires external action on the part of the child. He must provide the parents with food, clothes, shelter, medical and nursing care, since at some future date he will ask his children to do those same things for him. On the other hand he must not insult, give affront to, or humiliate his old father and mother, even though at times their conduct is bound to embarrass and provoke him or to arouse ridicule. Let him tolerate mutely their absurd whims, their infantile desires, their strange mannerisms which reflect senility, and try to gratify their needs. The son must not become angry or excited at the sight of an old mother offending him in the presence of great exalted men, or of a father throwing money into the sea. He might find himself in a similar situation and would not like his children to abuse him or to restrain him from doing those things in which he will childishly find delight." (Family Redeemed pg.138)
This approach casts "Kibbud Av va-Em" in an strange altruism. I honor my parents so that one day they will honor me. Is that all we have here?
APPROACH 2 – EDUCATION and TRANSMISSION OF THE TRADITION
Take a look at this interesting parallel.
In the 10 commandments (ch.5):
Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live long and fare well, in the land that the Lord your God is giving to you.
In the 2nd paragraph of the Shema (ch.6):
Teach them to your children—speaking about them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up… so you and your children may live long, in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to give to them, as long as there is a heaven over the earth.
The Ten Commandments speaks of honouring parents; the Shema refers to education of children. The reward seems highly similar in language and style. Is there a connection between education and honouring parents? Rav Yaakov Medan thinks that this is the crux of the issue:
The way Halakha defines the law of honouring parents … “Honour – this is to give food and drink, to clothe and cover, to take out and to bring in”(Kiddushin 31b) … would appear to relates to an frail, elderly parent who is infirm and cannot manage on his or her own. This parent needs another adult to attend them when they reach in an infirm state…
In contrast, the honour of parents in the Decalogue seems to relate primarily to a young child who is expected to honour the parent that raises him… The honour due to father or mother is not for themselves but rather so that the child will obey them and be attentive to their guidance and their Torah. …If the child fails to internalize the honour of his or her parents, how will they listen to their instruction and instruction?
…As such, the honour of parents is the obligation of the parent no less than that of the child. Both parties require the law of parental honour as a means of passing the tradition of faith from the parent to the child, the inheritance of Torah and morality.
If a parent is an equal to his or her child, then the child can make their own decisions, might feel that as society advances, their new ideas should supersede those of their parents. But the instruction to honour parents means that a parent is to be established as a source of wisdom, of authority, a source of inspiration, a link to a worthy and valuable past and a key to the future.
The family is the foundry of faith. Through the education and instruction given by the parent, the values of the child are forged, among these seeing God in the world. It is, more often than not, in the family that we develop our faith orientation. Moreover, the family is the place where the habits of life are inculcated. It is here that we seed the roots of our tradition. Parents pass on the values that matter. As such, several passages in Va’ethchanan deal with parents passing on critical historical perspectives:
But take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live. And make them known to your children and to your children’s children: The day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, when the Lord said to Me, “Gather the people to Me that I may let them hear My words, in order that they may learn to revere Me as long as they live on earth, and may so teach their children.” (4:9-10)
When, in time to come, your children ask you, “What mean the decrees, laws, and rules that the Lord our God has enjoined upon you?” you shall say to your children, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand….the Lord commanded us to observe all these laws, to revere the Lord our God, for our lasting good and for our survival, as is now the case. It will be therefore to our merit before the Lord our God to observe faithfully this whole Instruction, as He has commanded us.”
Without the command to revere parents, it will be difficult for parents to serve this critical educational role. Today, we “outsource” much of our children’s education to teachers and schools, but fundamentally, education is the obligation of the parent, as stated in the Shema: “And you shall teach your children.”
The flip-side of education is respect for parents. Respect for parents is the bedrock of the transmission of our tradition.
So let’s have a sensitive and honest discussion with our kids
Why do we honour our parents? Which model offered above appeals to you?
Is looking after elderly parents an act of altruism or one of self-interest?
What does honouring parents look like in 2019?
How about the educational model? Are parents successful in inculcating Judaism to the next generation in today's world?
In a rapidly changing world, what is reasonable to expect parents pass on to kids, and what is it reasonable to expect a child to reject from their parents?