Powered by FeedBlitz

home (Reb Barry's blog)

Torah Commentaries           

Teshuvot -- Jewish legal opinions

Op-ed pieces

Other writings


About Rabbi Leff 



Rabbi Barry Leff Digest
Number  29      Date  013003

Back to Divrei Torah (Torah Commentaries)
Back to Jackson Snyder Free Sermon

Topics in this digest:

1. Yitro 5763 Honor your Parents
From: "Rabbi Barry Leff" <>


Exodus 20:12. Honor your father and your mother; that your days may be
long upon the land which the Lord your God gives you.

To honor your parents is no simple thing. The rabbis taught
that this is the most difficult commandment of all to much so,
that one rabbi in the Talmud said it's better to be born an orphan. I
have a colleague who refuses to teach this commandment, on the grounds
that he has a terrible relationship with his father, and feels it would
be hypocritical for him to teach it, since he feels he is not doing a
very good job with following this mitzvah. I disagree with that
approach; even though I have issues in my relationship with my father,
I’m not going to let that deter me from teaching about this important

Why are parents singled out for this special treatment in
the Ten Commandments? The Talmud in tractate Kiddushin teaches us that
there are three partners in the creation of a person, the Holy One,
blessed be He, the father, and the mother. When people honor their
parents, God says ‘I ascribe [merit] to them as though I had dwelt among
them and they had honoured Me.’

Bringing a new life into the world is surely one of the most
mysterious and “God-like” activities we can engage in. The connection
with God is pretty clear: ask any infertile couple whether the decision
to have children is entirely in human hands. And even for those of us
blessed with fertility, we have little control over the specific nature
of any individual child. Anyone who has more than one child has surely
marveled at how different kids can be who come from the same genetic
stock and grow up in a very similar environment. As I said a few weeks
ago in my talk about cloning, one of the problems I have with cloning is
that it is seeming to want to take God out of the equation. Cloning is
an attempt to create a child without that pesky genetic variation that
God likes to introduce into the creation of a child.

So if we can understand the special role that parents have as partners
in Creation with God, we can appreciate why the commandment to honor
them is important. But how exactly do we honor our parents? If you ask
a child, 9 times out of 10 they will tell you we honor our parents by
obeying them. Not to discourage obedient children, but the truth is
that’s not what the commandment says—and advisedly so. The reason is
simple: what if your parent tells you to do something wrong? If your
parent tells you to do something against the Torah, you shouldn’t do it.
But at all times, even if the parent gives you bad instructions, you are
still commanded to honor them. So how do we go about this task? How
far are we supposed to go in honoring our parents?

The Talmud in tractate Kiddushin brings an interesting story. Rab Judah
said in Samuel's name: R. Eliezer was asked: How far does the honor of
parents [extend]? — he said, Go and see what a certain heathen, Dama son
of Nethinah by name, did in Askelon. The Sages sought jewels for the
ephod (the high priest’s breastplate), at a profit of
six-hundred-thousand [gold denarii], but as the key was lying under his
father's pillow, he did not trouble him. The following year the Holy
One, blessed be He, gave him his reward. A red heifer was born to him in
his herd (a 100% pure red heifer—without even one white hair—is VERY
rare, and essential to a critical ritual in the Temple). When the Sages
of Israel went to him [to buy it], he said to them, ‘I know that [even]
if I asked you for all the money in the world you would pay me. But I
ask of you only the money which I lost through my father's honor.’ Now,
R. Hanina observed, If one who is not commanded [to honour his parents],
yet does so, is thus [rewarded], how much more so one who is commanded
and does so! For R. Hanina said: He who is commanded and fulfils [the
command], is greater than he who fulfils it though not commanded.

Of course, in my family, I imagine Dad would be pretty upset if I let a
600,000 gold denarii profit disappear in favor of a nap, but maybe they
really didn’t need the money. But the message from the Talmud is clear:
honoring parents is more important than money.

The hero of that story also respected his mother. The
Talmud continues, Dama son of Nethinah was once wearing a gold
embroidered silken cloak and sitting among Roman nobles, when his mother
came, tore it off from him, hit him on the head, and spit in his face,
yet he did not shame her. How many of us would be able to put up with
such treatment in public, and not at least speak harsh words? By now,
you are probably getting the idea why the rabbis say this is such a
difficult commandment to obey.

Have you ever seen those bumper stickers on big RV’s that read “We’re
spending our children’s inheritance?” The rabbis tell us the kids
certainly have no grounds to complain. R. Eliezer was asked: How far
does the honor of parents [extend]? — He said : That if the father
should take a purse full of money and throw it into the sea in his son's
presence, the son should not shame him. The Talmud raises the question,
if it's the father's purse, why does it matter to the son? Say it
refers to a potential heir. 

These stories are told in the Talmud to show just how difficult it is to
REALLY honor your parents. However, as if honoring our parents wasn’t
enough, there is another commandment that is closely related to honoring
our parents. In Leviticus 19:3 it is written: A person shall revere
(fear) his mother and father, and keep my Sabbaths, I am the Lord your
God. This command is a little different than the one we read in this
week’s parsha: yirah, or fear, instead of cavod, honor; but also the
order is different. The verse we have in this week's parsha says to
honor your father and mother. The verse in Leviticus tells us to fear
our mother and father. The Talmud, tells us the reason behind this
change in order:

Rabbi said: It is revealed and known to Him Who decreed, and the world
came into existence, that a son honors his mother more than his father,
because she sways him by words; therefore the Holy One, blessed be He,
placed the honor of the father before that of the mother. It is revealed
and known to Him Who decreed, and the world came into existence, that a
son is more in awe of his father than his mother, because he teaches him
Torah, therefore the Holy One, blessed be He, put the fear [reverence]
of the mother before that of the father.

I find it fascinating that 1,500 years after those words were written,
human nature remains the same…most people would agree with the Talmud,
that we tend to honor or mother more and fear our father more. 

But as a practical matter, what’s the difference between to
have fear/awe, and to honor? The rabbis of the Talmud said ‘Fear’ means
that [the son] must neither stand in his [ father's] place nor sit in
his place, nor contradict his words, nor tip the scales against him.
‘Honour" means that he must give him food and drink, clothe and cover
him, lead him in and out. 

So if we are commanded to feed, clothe, and house our
parents, the next obvious question to ask is at whose expense? Do you
just provide the service, but spend the parents own money, or do you
foot the bill yourself? This is a very real question for those of us
who have parents who are in need of assisted living type arrangements,
who can’t care for themselves, and need help in making arrangements for
where and how to live.

As is often the case, the rabbis had an argument, this time over who
should pay. The side that said the son should pay based their view on a
verse which says to “honor the Lord with your substance (wealth).”
Since the rabbis made a connection between honoring parents and honoring
God, one view is that just as we honor God with our money, we should do
the same for our parents. The side that said at the son’s expense,
argued with the others, saying that if you say it’s at the son’s
expense, what kind of honor is that? How does that affect the son? The
response was through loss of time. And that is not an insignificant
thing. I’ve talked to many people who spend a lot of their spare time
taking care of aging parents, helping with shopping, housecleaning,
driving to medical appointments, etc. Even using the parent’s money, it
is still truly doing the mitzvah of honoring your parents to take care
of them in this way during their old age.

It is also well worth remembering that “what goes around comes around.”
Our children will learn how to treat us from how they see us treat our
parents. There is a story told of a family that had an elderly
grandfather living with them. Grandpa was getting pretty feeble, and
when he ate he kept making a big mess and breaking the dishes. The
parents got tired of the continual struggle, so they gave Grandpa a
wooden bowl which he couldn't break and fed him in the kitchen so he
wouldn't make a big mess at the table. One day the parents came home
and found little Timmy sitting and carving a piece of wood. Dad asked
"what are you doing?" Timmy said "I'm carving a bowl for you for when
you get old." That evening Grandpa was back at the regular table with
real dishes...

Shabbat Shalom! 

The world is built on three things: on the Torah, on service of God, and
on lovingkindness…Pirkei Avot 1:2 

Rabbi Barry Leff 
Beth Tikvah Congregation 
9711 Geal Road 
Richmond, BC V7E 1R4 

phone: (604) 271-6262 
fax: (604) 271-6270 


Top of page