In the Torah section of Yitro, we are told of the arrival of Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, his praise for Moses and the Israelites, his advice to Moses and the Israelites’ subsequently receiving the famous Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.
Amongst the Ten Commandments, fifth no less, we find (Sh’mot 20:12): “Honor your father and your mother, so that your days will be lengthened upon the land that the L-rd your G-d gives you.”
Our Sages emphasize the importance of this precept in declaring that one who heeds it will gain reward in both this world and the next (Mishna, Peah 1:1); and, in juxtaposing this precept to the first four commandments involving our obligations to G-d, our Sages tell us (Babylonian Talmud, Kidushin 30b) that one’s father and mother are to be considered partners with G-d in creation and when showing them honor, G-d announces, “I ascribe merit to them as though I had dwelt among them and they had honored Me.”
Because a child intuitively honors his mother more than his father because she is usually kinder to him, our Sages explain that the Torah precedes mention of the honor due his father prior to that of his mother. On the other hand, our Sages point out that, since a child tends to fear his father more than his mother, the Torah precedes enjoining fear for one’s mother prior to fear for one’s father (Babylonian Talmud, Kidushin 30b-31a).
In describing this precept of honoring one’s parents, our Sages tell us that, if one’s parents are in need, one should provide his parents with food, drink, clothing and blankets and guide them in their old age. In fearing one’s parents, one should not stand or sit in their usual places, contradict them nor support their opponents in a dispute (Babylonian Talmud, Kidushin 31b; Rashi ad locum). Included in this precept is the obligation to honor a step-parent and the eldest brother (Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 103a; Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 240:21-22). Moreover, although Jewish law allows the child to be reimbursed by his parents for monetary expenses on their behalf, the child must utilize his own funds even if his parents are not capable of covering the expenses (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 240:5). Attitude is also of great importance. One may, for example, offer his parents the finest foods, but, if done begrudgingly, will cause the child to lose his portion in the world to come. On the other hand, one may gain the world to come by requesting, in a spirit of kindness and respect and for his parent’s sake, that his father toil at back breaking work, such as grinding flour in a mill (Babylonian Talmud, Kidushin 32a). Nevertheless, a parent can absolve a child of his or her responsibilities towards them (Babylonian Talmud, Kidushin 32a) and it is not permitted for a child to transgress a prohibition of Jewish law at his parent’s request, since both the parent and child are obligated to heed G-d’s word (Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 6a).
In explaining the purpose of this precept, we find in Sefer HaChinukh (no. 33) that “a person must recognize and treat with loving kindness the people who treated him with goodness, and should not deny the great benefits he has received from others…. A person should realize that his father and mother are the cause of his being in the world. Therefore, it is proper for him to give them every honor and every benefit he can, since they brought him into the world and labored through many troubles over him in his early years.” In fact, when one makes an effort to show respect and honor for those closest to him and in whose presence one finds oneself regularly, despite the propensity for various negative impressions to arise during so much togetherness, one’s behavior tends to overflow into society at large, whereby a tendency is developed to respect and judge favorably our brethren in general. Indeed, the less respect and consideration displayed by individuals in the home, the more disrespect, lack of concern and selfishness one tends to see of those individuals outside of the home. One need only visit some communities in which the children barely know their fathers – if at all – and have hardly any meaningful connection with their mothers and witness the tendency to reprehensible behavior at the least and often to crime.
It is not for naught that this precept of respecting one’s parents was listed fifth among the Ten Commandments, sandwiched between precepts aimed at the honor of G-d and other precepts aimed at the stability of society at large. If we learn the patience and consideration to suppress our negative tendencies towards others and to rather concentrate on the positive elements in the behavior and positions of others, we can, not only, also learn to respect the positive elements of the members of society in general, but we may also be less inclined to get hurriedly infatuated with shortsighted material and hedonistic pursuits that more easily “tickle our fancy” and not neglect the more long term gains of heeding the Word of G-d as expressed in His Torah. After all is told, it is a matter of honor, the honor of those around us, our own honor and the honor of G-d.