WRESTLING THE FIFTH COMMANDMENT
Erev Rosh Hashanah, 5768
September 12, 2007
Because I love our community that has become family to so many of us, I’m focusing upon leadership and community this year for the High Holidays. I will begin at the beginning, which is in our families of origin, because it is with our parents, our first leaders, that we learn how to live in community. How we behave as leaders and how we respond to leaders has much to do with our parents.
In this season that often evokes memory our parents and grandparents, let’s look at how our tradition views the relationship between parents and children. It may guide us as a community towards wise relationship with our leaders.
Abraham Joshua Heschel called the Fifth Commandment, honoring your parents, the most important of the ten. The Talmudic rabbis called it the most difficult. For us, it remains mysterious. What does honor mean? Why not love instead of honor? Is it unconditional honoring? Are there limits or is it boundless? Why is it so important?
The Fifth Commandment not only made its way into our top ten laws, it is on the right tablet, the side concerned with the relationship between God and us. The first commandment states, “I am Adonai, your God.” The second is, “You will have no other gods before me.” Third, “You will not make a graven image Me nor of any living being.” And fourth, “You will keep the Sabbath.”
And then, “You will honor your father and mother, that you may long endure on the land that Adonai your God will give you.” We’d expect it to be on the left tablet with its laws concerning how humans do business with each other: don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t covet.
But no. Its right after the law to keep the Shabbat. What makes the relationship of parent and child more than just doing the right thing? Why is it sacred? It’s really simple. They are our creators. It’s about blood. They gave us life.
Interesting that this is one of the few commandments that offers a reward; if we honor our parents, we will have longevity. So many of us eschew, fat, sugar, and exercise for this gift, and yet here we have a clear guide that suggests that we would be better off in monitoring our filial relationships rather than diet to live long on the land. Why do you suppose this will bring us long life?
Remember that no commandment is one that comes naturally. As parents age, they require more time, and sometimes we resent it. To know that we will get this time back with a good old age may make the burden lighter. It will also set an example to our own children to help us in our old age.
We have three parents, two who are earthly, and the third Who creates the entire world. Our mothers contain us until we are viable physically to survive. God pushes us from the womb, and our fathers provide the shelter we need to grow.
They all nurture, teach, command, and cajole us. In the beginning, we are only aware of the parents that we see. No matter who our parents were, we are obliged to honor them by word and deed. When there is honor and respect between parents and children, God dwells between them.
We are also commanded to revere our parents. Whereas as honor is a positive behavior, to revere refers to all behavior where we must refrain from certain behaviors, including not contradicting them publicly. I remember being taught never to wake a sleeping parent.
There are stories of children visited by a stranger, usually Elijah in disguise, who asks for a key in the father’s pocket. The key will unlock great riches, and the child is tempted; the family is poor. But he doesn’t wake his father, and the family is doubly rewarded.
The practice of honoring begins early. A traditional education requires that children learn not to take a parent’s usual seat, not to contradict him or her publicly, and never to call him or her by a first name. Instead they say avi mori, my father, my teacher, or imi morati, my mother, my teacher.
The commandment to honor and revere our creators may not solve ambivalence and hurt, but learning what the behavior of honoring is may help us to overcome our feelings, and it will guide us on a path of spaciousness that leads us to act in ways that will not shame us.
The Fifth Commandment teaches how the tradition will be transmitted: from generation to generation. Such a law guarantees the following of the preceding four laws. We honor our parents by following the path they passed down to us.
Our parents are the first human beings we learn to honor. From that relationship we learn how to honor others. Since each of us is in the Image of God, we give honor to God when we honor one another. When we are small, our parents are God.
They gave us life and linked us to our ancestors’ history. They made Eden for us by responding to our needs. They comforted and fed us, and from them we came to learn that the world possesses compassion and love. From them, we learn to trust.
I know what some of you are thinking. Maybe what I’m describing doesn’t mirror your experience with your parents. When I’ve talked to teens about this, you can imagine the reaction. One boy indignantly responded, “What about the girl who gave birth to her baby at the high school prom and dumped him in the garbage? Does he have to honor his mother?”
The law is unconditional. The rabbis called it the most stringent. It doesn’t apply only to deserving parents, because it is less about our parents than about us. Two came together to create the mystery of our being. When we honor our parents, it is not only about our relationship to them but how we see ourselves. Our honor and reverence is at the least for the miracle of our being. You honor your essence when you honor those who have given you uniqueness.
Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “In spite of the negative qualities they may discover in their fathers, children should remember the most important thing is to ponder the mystery of their own existence. If I do not have reverence for the mystery of my existence, regardless of the special faults of my parents, I’m simply not human.”
The tradition acknowledges the difficulty of honoring our parents, even under better circumstances than the one described above. First of all, there is the natural phenomenon of taking things for granted. The first time we’ve given something, we’re delighted. The second time we’re pleased. After a while, we come to expect it. We rarely thank parents for a meal.
Our parents give us so much that we become accustomed to the gift. We need a commandment to remember to honor their acts of kindness, most especially the gift of life. The habit of honoring parents teaches us the practice of gratitude for everything.
The commandment is also a challenge because it encompasses a relationship that has ranged from complete dependence to rebellion and alienation in its search for a balance of power. We once loved our parents more than anyone else in the world, and we needed to separate from them to grow up.
When we no longer need our parents is when we need the commandment. Small children don’t need it. Few of us have never felt ambivalence about our parents. We see how they are the source for problems in other relationships and in ourselves. Honoring is a boundary for the times we may not love our parents.
When I began research about the fifth commandment, I was shocked to discover how many of us have experienced estrangement from a parent or child, sometimes for years. Many of you were generous in sharing your stories. The one that surprised me most came from my father, who told me that he hadn’t spoken to his mother for a year. Mine was a family where respecting elders was primary. Yet my grandmother and stepmother had a disagreement and my grandmother’s response was to change the terms of her will. (She was notorious for this).
My father stopped talking to her until she reversed the change. I asked him why he didn’t talk to her about it, and he said that he was so hurt he never wanted her to do it again. I asked him if he thought he had violated the commandment. He thought a moment and said, “If she had been in real need, I would have been there. She knew that, and she knew why I wasn’t talking to her.” He felt that he hadn’t done it to inflict reciprocal pain. He did it to save my grandmother from having a child who no longer trusted and loved her.
The rabbis understood a great psychological truth in the language of the commandment. Rambam tells us that it is possible to honor and revere and obey those whom one does not love or respect. Gur Aryeh ha-Levi, a seventeenth-century sage understood the commandment to apply primarily to a parent’s last years, typically the most demanding and least rewarding. Society dismisses the elderly who are no longer of use and are a drain of resources.
“Honor your father and mother” applies specifically to this time. Just as they cared for us when we were young and demanding, so we do no less for them, for as long as we can without harming ourselves. This includes giving them food and drink, clothing them, and escorting them if they need it.
I spoke to a woman whose mother was mentally ill. The daughter was always respectful yet resentful that she had to be the mother of her mother. Her heart was closed to her mother. One day she decided that the burden was too much, and that she wanted to change. She began by saying for the first time, “I love you,” to her mother. “The moment I spoke the words,” she said, “I could feel between us how much the words meant to both of us, how she had been waiting for them.” The mother responded, “I love you, too.” The daughter had been waiting for those words, too.
Honoring is expressed through positive acts. That means keeping them in your lives even if you live far from them. Seek out their opinions and advice. Let them know by visits and calls that you care about them.
It is the wise person who learns from everyone. The great sage, the Dalai Lama, speaks about his mother with lavish affection and respect. He reminds us that once we lived within our mothers, how her body fed us when we were born, and how we have cellular connection with her. It is the highest relationship we have. When we honor our parents, we honor the sacrifice that loved and cared for us.
We are reminded every morning in our prayers that certain deeds benefit us on earth and in heaven. The first of these is honoring our parents. What can we do each day to love and respect our parents? What will make them feel honored or cherished? Can you visit or call them today?
If your parents are no longer alive, you can do a good deed or give money in their memory. Perhaps you can tell a story or teach a lesson that they taught you or do something that you know that would please them, like calling a sibling.
The word for honor in Hebrew is Kibbud; in Yiddish we call it a “koved”, or honor, when we are asked onto the bima during services. It also means weight. An honor is heavy. We must be worthy of our children’s honor.
Heschel wrote, “I am a father. I have a daughter. I love her dearly. And I would like her to obey the commandments of the Torah. I would like her to revere me as her father. And I asked myself the question again and again, ‘What is there about me that would be worth her reverence?’ unless I live a life that would deserve her reverence, I would make it impossible for her to live a life of Judaism.
If the children complain about the father, there are two aspects to it. Maybe they are right, and maybe they are wrong. If I grow up and hear my father speak in a way that could evoke my contempt and my distrust, I would have a tough time revering him. Fortunately, I had a very noble father.”
During our service, we call on God as our father, our king. I’ve suggested that we imagine ourselves as little ones carried out into a vast sea, secure in our parent’s arms. It is that early trust that gives us the imagination to trust God to take us to a higher level, no matter how deep the sea. In the High Holiday liturgy, we ask that the hearts of the parents and children be turned to one another. Our relationship to our parents guides us towards our third Parent.
We honor our parents by the way we live our lives and in the way we include them in our adult lives. We honor their lessons in teaching us how to live in the world with honor and respect for all beings. May we be worthy of our parents’ efforts and hopes.