In the aforementioned incident, Moses exhibited an exemplary demonstration of what is entailed in the fifth of the Ten Commandments presented later on this Torah section to the nation of Israel (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.”
As is expounded in the Code of Jewish Law, Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 240, one must exert special efforts to exhibit respect and honor to parents as well as in-laws and step-parents. In fact, R. Avraham Pam (1913 – 2001), the well known rosh yeshiva of Torah Vada’at, noted regarding the law of respecting parents (Sholom Smith, A Vort from Rav Pam, p. 101-102) that the centrality of honoring one’s parents in the life of a Jew is of extreme importance. Being that it is listed among the first five of the Ten Commandments, which are between man and G-d, and not among the second five, which are interpersonal, he suggests may be an allusion to the words of our Sages (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 30b) who say that when we honor our parents it is as if we are honoring G-d Himself.
In the work Minchat Chinukh, chap. 33, an explanation is offered for the importance of the precept to honor parents. One’s entire existence in this world is a result of one’s parents, which in and of itself warrants appreciation. All the hard work, time, energy and financial resources that parents invest during a child’s upbringing to provide for a child’s needs, emotionally and physically, and to establish that child as a fully functioning adult to be able to continue enjoying the benefits of this world independently warrants immeasurable gratitude. Honoring one’s parents serves to instill a general appreciation of the good imparted by others.
In his Chayei Adam (67:3), R. Avraham Danzig (1748 – 1820) stresses an added aspect to honoring one’s parents. One must not only honor one’s parents in deed and action, but in heart and mind too. One must think of one’s parents as noble people who are worthy of respect and honor even if others consider them as simple and unimportant. The care and the time and the energies that parents pour into their children over their childhood is plenty to warrant a child to see his or her parent as someone special – at least to that child, let alone, on top of all the time, money and effort invested, the salient advice parents provide to children to help them grow and flourish. Upon contemplating all that a parent provides a child, should a child not appreciate and recognize his or her parent as someone very important to him or her, it would be, as suggested in the aforementioned section of Minchat Chinukh, quite deplorable.
It is the understanding of the great importance of honoring parents that Moses exhibited when meeting his father-in-law. Imagine the scene. Moses, a man who grew up in royalty, chosen to be spoken to by none other than G-d Himself, a man who stood up to Pharaoh, leader of the greatest country in the world at the time, undisputed leader of the entire nation of Israel, who performed unparalleled miracles that stunned all onlookers, principle teacher to all the Israelites, presenting and explaining all of G-d’s laws and adjudicating all disputes gets a surprise visit from his wife’s father. What would another of even a quarter of Moses’ stature do in his place? Someone else would probably give his father-in-law a guest room, eat supper with him and, otherwise, go on with “business a usual.” Moses brings together Aaron and all the elders of the nation to greet his father-in-law and sit down with him for a festive meal. True, his father-in-law was also a former leader of the small country of Midian, and apparently a special personality in his own right, but his resume did not match that of Moses. Not only that, as mentioned in Rashi (Sh’mot 18:12 ), Moses did not just invite his father-in-law to a royal festive meal with all the nation’s dignitaries, he, the great and fearless leader and teacher of the entire nation, raised in luxurious royalty, personally serves the meal! If this is not enough, what happens afterwards? His father-in-law offers a critique of Moses’ manner of teaching and adjudicating the nation! Instead of ignoring the audacity of questioning his recognizably superior understanding and capabilities, Moses patiently considers his father-in-law’s suggestion. Moses recognized that this is the man who raised his wife, cared for her, sacrificed for her and expended much energy for her, all while constantly striving, despite the difficulties of raising his children, to grow in his spirituality, to lead his compatriots and endured the embarrassment of having his leadership rejected due to the honesty of his convictions (see Rashi, Sh’mot 2:16; 18:11). Moses understood what his father-in-law represented and he was not too conceited to recognize it. His lack of conceit and his intellectual honesty also allowed him to accept that another man of the intelligence of Yitro, whether equal to his own or not, may have something tangible to offer in the form of advice that even he may have overlooked.
Our Sages tell us (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 30a) of a different demonstration of honor towards a parent, that of the great King Solomon, unparalleled in wisdom, towards his own father, the progenitor of the Davidic dynasty, King David. While David spent part of his youth shepherding his father’s flocks and much of his adulthood in battles, with enemy nations and with internal detractors, Solomon was able to sit calmly in contemplation of G-d and His wonders. True King David was no “pushover” intellectually, personally compiling numerous lines of exquisite poetry; Solomon, though, was directly bestowed by G-d Himself with incomparable wisdom. And while King David was not permitted to build the Bet HaMikdash, Holy Temple , the wise King Solomon was given the task and spent years supervising the construction of this enormous and majestic edifice in honor of G-d. Yet, upon completion of the construction of the Bet HaMikdash, the great and wise King Solomon called upon the majesty of his father King David and David’s closeness to G-d to inaugurate this wonderful edifice. Despite his own great stature, King Solomon was not too conceited to insist on enforcing his own honor. The wise King Solomon recognized and displayed to all the special character of his father, honoring him tremendously in the face of all of his late father’s detractors. Like Moses in relation to Yitro, Solomon recognized that this is the man who raised him, cared for him, sacrificed for him and expended much energy for him, all while constantly striving, despite the difficulties of raising his children, to grow in his spirituality, to lead the entire nation of Israel and endured the enormous stress of having his leadership challenged over and over despite his very positive convictions, regardless of a serious error in judgment in his encounter with Batsheva.
An amusing yet profound story concerning this precept of honoring parents is related concerning the great latter day Torah giant R. Yaakov Kamenetsky (Yonason Rosenblum, Reb Yaakov, pp. 218-219). Once, on a plane, R. Kamenetsky was seated next to Yerucham Meshel, then Secretary General of Israel ’s Histadrut union. In the course of a conversation, Meshel remarked about how a middle aged man and a young woman especially cared about R. Kamenetsky’s well being, and was amazed to find out that they were his son and granddaughter. Sadly, he confided to R. Kamenetsky that he rarely saw his own children and almost never his grandchildren. R. Kamenetsky opined that the difference in their relationships to their respective children and grandchildren stemmed from their differing views of Creation. The Torah tells us (Vayikra 19:3), “Every man shall revere his mother and his father and you shall observe my Sabbaths, I am the L-rd your G-d.” Rashi explains the juxtaposition of the two precepts in one verse as teaching us that if one’s parent commands him to desecrate the Sabbath, he is to refrain. However, R. Kamenetsky pointed that any other prohibition, e.g. eating meat and milk together, could have been used to bring out the same point that G-d’s commands supercede that of one’s parents. Rather, the Sabbath was particularly mentioned because it is the reminder that G-d created the world, culminating in the creation of man, and it is this recognition that is essential in respecting one’s parents. R. Kamenetsky told Meshel, “You, on the other hand, believe in the Darwinian view of life as the result of random, purposeless events; so, as far as your descendants are concerned, you’re just one generation closer to the apes than they are. We, on the other hand, do not believe that we are superior to our ancestors. Quite the contrary. For us the central event in history was the Revelation at Sinai. The generations immediately after that Revelation lived in awe of their parents as people to whom G-d actually spoke. And their children, in turn, viewed them with veneration for having known those who heard G-d speak. And so it is with each passing generation. My children and grandchildren honor me as one who had contact with spiritual giants whose greatness is almost beyond their comprehension, and therefore they attribute to me a wisdom and spiritual sensitivity that they do not possess. And I, for my part, try to pass on to them something of what I learned from the previous generations.” A significant aspect of respecting one’s parents is recognizing that they were exposed to the wisdom of prior wiser generations that the children did not have access. This and of itself, in addition to all the caring, toil, time and finances invested, warrants respect for parents.
An anecdote is told of a boy who was very embarrassed by his mother’s appearance. His mother had a glass eye which made her look strange and the boy was very uncomfortable around her. At some point, he even ran away. Eventually, he got married, had children and moved far away. After a while, his mother decided to make a surprise visit to the son she loved and see her grandchildren. She found out where he lived, bought a ticket and flew to the far away country where her son lived. When she came to his home and knocked on the door, she was distressed to find that her son seemed not to want her there. Realizing that her son’s problem with her stemmed from her glass eye, she chose to tell her son something she had never told him before. When her son was a very little boy, he developed a serious problem with one of his eyes. To prevent her dear son from growing up with only one functioning eye and bear the difficulties, socially and physically, that would accompany this, she chose to donate one of her eyes to her son. This was why she had a glass eye. It was for the love of her son, an immeasurable sacrifice for his well-being. The son looked at his mother very differently after this revelation.
Some children see, absorb and remember the many manifestations of self-sacrifice that their parents exercise over the many formative years of their childhood. They recognize the many sleepless nights and stressful days that their parents spent at their side to nurse them to good health during an illness or after an accident (visits to the doctor, stays in the hospital, visits to the pharmacy etc.). They recognize the luxuries their parents chose to do without in order to have funds to give their children a happy and fruitful life and a proper education. They recognize the enormous amount of hours and days that their parents took away from what they wanted to do in order to help their children. They recognize the many issues that their parents helped them work out rather than use that time for their own needs. They recognize the immeasurable stress their parents endured at work or in other pursuits, preventing their reaching personal milestones, whether in the way of losing a promotion or not gaining the desired knowledge they wished, because they could not concentrate sufficiently since their minds were on their children and the issues that affected their children. They recognize how uniquely special and capable their parents are to have gotten to the point where they currently are despite the many hurdles and pressures that they had to overcome in the course of their children’s upbringing. They recognize that others who on the face of things may seem more studious or more knowledgeable or brighter or have better positions in life may not have had to overcome a fraction of the hurdles that their parents did and if they did may not have reached the level of achievement that their parents did. They recognize that even if their parents erred at times it was a natural outcome of severe pressures that weighed on their shoulders, and if another seemingly more intelligent individual with a calmer life would have experienced their parents’ pressures he would very likely have erred at least as much – if not more. They recognize that living life’s pursuits, physically and spiritually, and at the same time dealing with the pressures that life deals a person, especially those connected with raising children, is no simple task, and the very fact that a parent can reach life’s goals to any significant degree while suffering life’s many disappointments and exercising the great self-sacrifice, thought, time and energy entailed in raising children is reason in and of itself for the utmost praise, appreciation and respect.
Unfortunately, there are some children who do not see the praiseworthy performance of their parents for what it is. They do not think about everything that their parents go through in getting their children to where they are now. Some do to some point but are swayed by another person whom they are impressed by and whom they think make their parents pale in comparison, may he be a teacher or successful businessman, and they fail to appreciate the monumental efforts that their parents exercised, and that had that person needed to exercise those efforts he may never have reached the plateau he was at now. Some children, out of fear that consulting with parents shows weakness, choose to virtually push their parents aside, after years of having a close open and intelligent relationship, after years of being assisted in countless ways and openly discussing countless topics, relegating their relationship to one of simple chit chat no more than what would be talked about with any minor acquaintance. And it is such lack of appreciation for parents on the part of some children that leads to much angst, sadness and even stress where parents are shut out from giving the advice and assistance that they can provide, if turned to, that leads oftentimes to serious mistakes on the part of children that could have been avoided had children properly respected and appreciated their parents’ role in their lives. An American thinker once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” One can in the same vein say, “Those who cannot learn from their parents’ experiences are condemned to repeat them.” And if they repeat them, they may not handle them as well as their parents could, causing unnecessary hardships that could have been avoided.
It is the understanding that there is much to learn from the experiences of parents who have raised us and seen and worked through difficulties in the course of raising us and therefore deserve significant respect and appreciation that Moses exhibited towards Yitro, although Moses apparently reached a higher spiritual and administrative plateau. It is such an understanding that King Solomon exhibited with regards to his father King David, although Solomon reached the highest plateau in wisdom. It is such an understanding that is alluded to in the works of Minchat Chinukh and Chayei Adam and the words of R. Pam. It is the understanding that there is much to learn from the experiences of parents who have raised us and seen and worked through difficulties in the course of raising us and been privy to the thoughts and ideas of great people long gone and therefore deserve significant respect and appreciation that is alluded to in R. Yaakov Kamenetsky’s words or in the story of the mother with the glass eye.
“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.” Children everywhere, young and old, single or married, studious and knowledgeable or successful or not so, should carefully think and consider how much their parents have accomplished for them and others and the stumbling blocks they had to dodge along the way and give their parents the respect and appreciation they deserve and take advantage of what they can still learn from them, so that their “days will be lengthened.” Doing otherwise is not only wrong intellectually; it can “condemn” children to pitfalls that parents already learned to dodge but that the children may not be so fortunate. It is no light matter and it should be treated accordingly. This is the view of the Torah. This is the view of G-d.