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Parshas Va-eschanan (5773)

"Honor Your (Difficult) Father and Your (Difficult) Mother"

We all know that the Torah commands us to honor our parents. It is one of the Ten Commandments and is a very important mitzvah. The problem is that sometime our parents do things that …er, how shall I say …make it really difficult to honor them. Sometimes our parents act in such unpleasant and abusive ways that we begin to wonder if the Torah still expects us to honor them and treat them with respect and reverence.

Now it is true that the Talmud in Kiddushin 31a relates a story in which a Roman officer named Dama Ben Nesinah is praised for maintaining his composure even after his mother tore his clothes off and spit in his face in public. This story seems to imply that one must honor even an abusive parent.

However, the Tosafos and other Talmudic commentators point out that, according to the Midrash, the mother in the story was meturefes b'daatah (insane or suffering from Alzheimer's disease), and thus not responsible for her abusive actions.

Furthermore, most Halachic authorities – with the notable exception of Maimonides – hold that one is not obligated to honor a father or mother who is a rasha (wicked), unless, of course, the parent did teshuvah (repentance) and changed his or her errant ways. However, it must be pointed out that even according to the opinion that one need not honor a wicked parent, it is absolutely forbidden to cause a wicked parent pain and suffering.

[To learn more about the Halachos regarding abusive and wicked parents and how they apply in modern times, see Dr. Benzion Sorotzkin’s excellent article Honoring Parents Who Are Abusive online at: http://drsorotzkin.com/honoring_abusive_parents.html ] But what about parents who aren’t necessarily “cruel” or “abusive” but rather act in such selfish ways that make it really hard for us to respect them? How can the Torah ask us to honor and revere such immature parents, especially when their childish behavior negatively impacts on their children, and sometimes can even destroy the family?

A cousin of mine had this very question when his parents went through an unnecessarily messy divorce when he was very young – and which tore the family apart. He was so angry at his parents for years for what they did to him and his siblings, and he certainly couldn’t understand how the Torah could expect him to “honor” and “respect” them.

After many years, he told me that he came to a new insight into the Torah’s commandment to honor even difficult parents which finally brought him the closure he so badly needed – and I would like to share this insight with all of you:

In the Ten Commandments, which are repeated in this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Va’eschanan, we find a very strange anomaly. In the Fifth Commandment, which is to honor your father and mother, the Torah adds “as the Lord, your G-d, has commanded you”.

What is the point of adding these words – and what do they even mean? After all, according to our tradition, all ten of the commandments were commanded by G-d, so why did the Torah need to write this obvious point regarding the fifth commandment?

Rashi quotes the Talmud in Sanhedrin 56b which states that the Torah’s intent in adding these words was to highlight the fact that G-d had already commanded the Jewish people to honor their parents before Mount Sinai at a place called Marah.

As the Torah tells us in Parshas Beshalach, when the Jewish people had just left the Red Sea and had camped at Marah, “There [at Marah] He established for [the nation] a statute and a judgment …” (see Exodus 15:25). And the Talmud explains this to mean that G-d gave the Jewish people a few commandments including the Sabbath and Honoring Parents for them to “practice” in advance of their receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.

The question still remains, though, for of what benefit was it for the Jewish people to be reminded at Mount Sinai that they had already received this commandment at Marah?

My cousin explained as follows: The Jewish people had just left Egypt and headed into the desert after having witnessed amazing, overt miracles like the Ten Plagues and the Splitting of the Sea, in which G-d showed them His incredible might as well as His tremendous Divine Providence over them.

They then reached a place called Marah where they couldn’t drink the water because it was bitter (see Exodus 15:23). So the people complained against Moses saying, “What shall we drink?” The Mechilta (one of the classic Midrashic commentaries on the Book of Exodus) tells us that although the people made recriminations against Moses, their complaints were intended against G-d as well.

So G-d instructed Moses to throw something into the water and it made the water sweet, and the Jewish people were able to drink from it. Right after this, the Torah tells us that G-d gave the people the mitzvah of Honoring Parents and a few other commandments for them to practice before they got the real thing at Mount Sinai a few weeks later.

Can you imagine – asked my cousin – the reaction the children must have had when they heard for the first time at Marah that G-d wanted them to respect and show honor to their parents? “What was that, G-d? You want us to respect them?! Our parents just experienced all those incredible, nature-defying miracles in Egypt and now when they come to a place with no water they start complaining and kvetching that they are going to die from thirst?? What ingrates! What immature babies!”

Yet despite their parents’ childish and immature behavior at Marah, G-d commanded the children to honor their parents because the gratitude that the children owe their parents for giving them life itself and for taking care of their needs transcends all else.

Our parents might be far from perfect, but we still owe them so much gratitude for all the good they did (and continue to do) for us from the beginning of our lives and onwards. We don’t always have to agree with them, and we can even think they are acting foolish and selfish at times, and we might even be very angry at them for destroying the family through the bad choices they make, yet (unless they are totally “wicked”) that will never cancel out the debt we owe them for bringing us into this world and taking care of us the way they did.

We now understand why G-d reminded the Jewish people at Mount Sinai that He had already commanded them to honor their parents at Marah. He wanted to stress to them – and to all of us - that even when our parents are acting like little children the way they did at Marah, we still have an obligation to honor them as a sign of our boundless gratitude for what they did for us.

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