Are We Friends? A Look at the Mitzvah to Honor Our Parents By Aviva Meshwork
“Ima, are we friends?” asked my 6 year old daughter not long ago as we were hanging out in the kitchen – she coloring a picture and I doing the dishes. Her question was so casual and so nonchalant; asked almost as if she were to ask me something completely mundane like, “Ima, how do you spell ‘Zebra’?” or “Can I have a snack?” But, while this may have been a seemingly causal question to her, it was indeed a loaded one to me. I had now been tasked with the job of setting things straight with my daughter with respect to our parent-child relationship. It was perhaps my first opportunity to verbally clarify for my little girl what my role is to her, and perhaps more importantly, what hers is towards me. I had to gently explain that we are not friends, nor will we ever be (despite the fact that she is awesome and that if I were 6, I would hands down choose her as a friend – no question). Rather, since I am her mother, I have a different role to play in her life other than ‘friend’. In fact, as I went on to explain to her, our relationship is so special that Hashem has told us kids (yes- as she was surprised to find out, I am shockingly a ‘child’ too) we must treat our parents in a very special way, just because they are our parents. Hard to explain to a 6 year old, but it was perhaps her first time hearing that parents and friends are different types of relationships. This was an important distinction to understand and accept, since each relationship needs to be treated accordingly, and especially since we have a Commandment to ‘Honor your Parents.’
The Commandment to ‘Honor your Parents’ is the fifth out of the ten given to us Jews over 3000 years ago. It is a Commandment that was applicable to the Jews of those days, and like all the other Commandments, it is applicable to the Jews of today. Admittedly difficult at times, considering some of us have what we feel are challenging parents, and often times various personality types may collide. Yet, it is a Commandment that we are all required to fulfill.
For some of us, the good news is that the Commandment states that we must ‘honor’ our parents- not love our parents or even respect our parents. It is a noteworthy distinction since the Torah instructs us to love thy neighbor, even thy stranger, but not thy parents. Seems a bit odd at first glance, but that’s likely because our Creator knows that there are some among us, who for whatever reasons, cannot love or even respect their parents. This just goes to show that the Torah’s wisdom is so profound as we are not obligated to do that which may be emotionally/psychologically impossible to do. Therefore we should understand the word ‘honor’ as a behavior, rather than a feeling, an act that we are obliged to perform despite the types of parents we were given. That being said, it is even better if we love and respect our parents too, since so many of us have very special people who we call mom and dad. Nevertheless, all types of parents, on either side of the spectrum, are due their children’s honor.
So what is honor? I always thought it really meant to respect, but as I later came to understand, honor is quite different. Honor implies that there is a distinction between the honored and the one doing the honoring. In other words, honor indicates that there is an authority figure (hence parents and children are not equals and not friends). You don’t show honor to anyone who is in a lower or equal status bracket to you, no matter how respectable they may or may not be. Since honor is accorded to those who are in authoritative positions, they usually have titles that we refer to them by (think Mr. President, Colonel, Your Majesty, Mom and Dad). The title reflects their role and status vis-à-vis you and them and therefore, should serve as an indication that they are to be treated in a certain way. With respect to our parents, their rank reflects that they are the ones who brought us into this world and gave us the great opportunity of life – for without them, we wouldn’t be here! The fact that they gave us food, clothing, shelter, love, education, diaper changes, quinoa, story time etc. is irrelevant to the fact that they gave us life. That reality alone, and only because of it, obliges us to bestow them with honor. In fact, this Commandment was given to the Jews while they were in the desert- a time when their food sustenance- manna– fell from the sky, water was easily accessed from the well and their clothing never got dirty thanks to the special clouds that took care of the ‘laundry’. Yet even despite that generation’s ease in parenting and child care, the children of that time and the Jewish children from generations to follow were – and are – all commanded to accord honor to parents.
So, how does the Torah expect us to honor our parents? Actually, it’s a two-part process – essentially there are dos and don’ts. Ultimately, we are charged with caring for their basic needs, should they be unable to do so themselves. This includes feeding them, plus assisting them in that process, including grocery shopping and meal prep. Additionally, we need to provide them with clothing and shelter if they are unable to afford it themselves. We must also escort our parents to and fro, and assist them in getting to places should they need that. The don’ts include not sitting in their chairs, contradicting them, even if they are clearly wrong about something, and not speaking instead of them.
I hang my head in shame when I say that I would likely not do this if I were not commanded to do so. Certainly not because my parents are unworthy or bad parents – quite the contrary – I was raised by good parents. Nonetheless, it goes against my nature and even more so, societal norms, to honor my parents in the way the Torah instructs. I can think of many times that I spoke out of turn towards may parents or even sat in their seat at the table. I have a strong feeling that I am not the only one in this boat – if honoring parents were a natural thing to do, we wouldn’t have to be commanded to do it in the first place. It’s not how we are with our own children, whereby we generally and inherently try our best to do right by them, and care for their physical and emotional needs in the best ways possible and to the best of our abilities. It’s no stretch for parents to want to feed, clothe, and shelter their children, take parenting classes and seek advice in order to better parent, and so on. This is something we want, and probably even more so strongly, feel the need to do for them. Our Creator clearly knows this about us and therefore, doesn’t need to command us to do that which is possible for us to do innately. But, not so with things that are against our nature, yet essentially incumbent on us despite it. When it comes to our parents – we naturally don’t do this by and large. Commandments are a good thing.
So, this is why I told my daughter that she and I are not friends (albeit, phrased a bit more gently!) As her mother, we have a unique relationship and I therefore need to be treated in a special way, as brought down in the 10 Commandments. Parents who understand that their role is to indeed parent, will help their children fulfill this commandment better. *
*There are some exceptions and sensitivities to this Commandment, and one should consult an appropriate authority on these matters when doubts come up. This article is in no means intended as a substitute for appropriate Rabbinic consultation.
Aviva Meshwork is an educator, writer, and Trip Director for the JWRP. Originally from Toronto, she now lives in Israel with her husband and 4 children.