Last Shabbat morning, we welcomed seventeen beautiful souls into our Shearith Israel family at our Tiny Treasures ceremony. It was an interesting coincidence that on the morning we celebrated and welcomed the newest children of our community, we also read the commandment to honor our parents. As a parent myself, this strikes me as an interesting tension. Quite often, when I honor my daughter, I find myself having to do things that under other circumstances would not bring me honor at all. There’s very little kavod in changing diapers, or in paying tuition bills, or in my case, pretending to be Cookie Monster so that I can gobble up sweets to ensure that if someone is going to overdose on sugar, it’s going to me and not my daughter.
I give up some of my honor, and sometimes, a little of my dignity, to take care of my child. Similarly, traditional forms of honoring parents require that children remind themselves of their place by lowering themselves before their parents. When children stand up when their parents enter the room, when they answer “Yes, sir”, or “No ma’am,” and when they are told, at the Passover Seder, that they need to need to sit on the plastic chair (instead of the cushier and roomier chair that came with the dining room set) so that Mom or Dad or Grandma or Grandpa can be comfortable – they are giving of something of themselves for the sake of their elders.
But the words of the fifth commandment, however, imply that honoring our parents is not in fact a selfless act, but rather, at least in some ways, a self-serving act. “Honor your father and your mother, so that your days on this earth may be lengthened.” The performance of this commandment comes with a pretty significant reward – which is strange for a couple of reasons:
First, because one might think it goes without saying that we should honor our parents because it’s the right thing to do, just as it’s the right thing not to steal or murder or commit adultery. And second, because the Torah is not in the habit of bribing people to do mitzvot. Very few of the commandments come with a reward – and that’s the point. We do them because we are told to, because that’s part of what God expects from us.
So, it’s worth thinking about. Why does the Torah offer us this reward and why is the reward for this commandment long life, as opposed to, let’s say, material wealth, or something that would make more sense in this context like the promise of children of our own?
One answer might come from Deuteronomy 21, which tells us that if a child refuses to obey her parents, if the child refuses to respect their authority, the parent can take her to the gates of the town and ask the elders to stone her to death as a punishment. Children should realize that their parents exert so much control that they literally and metaphorically have total power over their lives.
Other explanations from our medieval commentators are slightly more palatable. Rav Sadia Gaon points out that children often end up as caretakers for their parents when they are older, in many cases they enable them to live longer than they might otherwise have. When we take care of our parents in their infirmity, we are earning the right for others, our own children, to do the same for us. If we don’t treat our parents with respect, how can we expect others to afford that honor to us?
Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel points out that there are many similar obligations to show honor and deference. We are supposed to respect our elders, pay tribute to scholars and prominent political figures. When we do this, we are creating not just a world where parents are venerated, but where respect is a central value, a common expectation. The commandment is not just about our family, but about the entire world. And when the world is a place where human dignity is respected, then each of us truly does have a greater chance of living a longer life.
What I like about these last two explanations is the idea that respecting our parents is not intended by our tradition to be a zero sum game. Changing my daughter’s diapers might not be the most glorious thing in the world, but if you think about it, it is an action that promotes a certain kind of life. It keeps her healthy and happy and it also sustains me – because taking care of her has inspired me in many ways to take better care of myself. When a parent disciplines a child after they behave in a way that is unsafe or unwise, they are giving their daughter or son a roadmap for making good decisions – assuming they choose to listen.
Like so many things in Judaism, honoring parents is not unidirectional action, but a covenantal one – one in which both parties share in the obligation, but also in the reward. And that, indeed, is a recipe for a happy, healthy, long life.