You shall each revere your mother and your father, and keep My sabbaths: I the Eternal am your God. (Leviticus 19:3)
Recently, when I told my elderly mother that I was unable to visit her one weekend, she reminded me of the fifth commandment, to honor one's parents, lest there be retribution. At first I dismissed our conversation as a typical mother-daughter Jewish guilt-ridden exchange, but it set me thinking and I sought answers in the Torah.
The commandment to honor one's parents appears in two variations. In Exodus 20:12 it is written: "Honor [Hebrew, kabeid ] your father and your mother, that you may long endure on the land that the Eternal your God is assigning to you." A similar commandment appears in this week's Torah portion, K'doshim, with a slightly different text. Instead of honoring our parents, we are now each instructed to "fear" (tira-u) our parents. And while in Exodus we are commanded first to honor our father and then our mother, in Leviticus that order is reversed: we are commanded first to fear our mother and then our father.
The root of the word for fear is yira-yod, reish, alef-and it appears hundreds of times in the Bible in many different forms. Although its predominant meaning is "to fear," it can also mean "to be in awe of," "to revere," "to honor," "to feel terror of," and so on. For example, in the Song at the Sea, the Eternal One is described as norat'hilot, "awesome in splendor" (Exodus 15:11), and in Deuteronomy 26:8 we are told that "the Eternal freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome [Hebrew, mora] power. "
So what is the difference between honor and fear? According to Rashi, honor (kavod) implies that "the child gives parents to eat and to drink, provides them with clothes and shoes, leads them into the room and out if they are infirm" (Rashi on Leviticus 19:3) In other words, to respect one's parents implies taking care of their physical needs when they themselves are not able to do so. The father is mentioned first here because by nature, a child has a closer relationship with the mother who brings him (or her) up, and it is assumed that she would be honored more. Therefore to balance the honor between mother and father, it is more important to mention the father first. But Rabbi Ovadya S'forno (a classic Italian Torah commentator, 1470-1550) explains that honoring one's parents by food, drink, and clothing is not enough. One can take care of all one's parents' physical needs without actually honoring them; therefore, the added dimension of fear or awe is necessary in order to ensure the kavod.
The relationship between parents and their children is but a mirror of our relationship with God. Just as God creates "man," ish, our parents create us. Hence the parallel phrase in Leviticus 19:3 talks about the commandment to keep the Sabbaths in the same breath as it mentions revering one's parents. In the literal translation from the Hebrew, the phrase "a person, his mother and father shall revere," ish imo v'aviv tira-u, can be interpreted metaphorically to mean "all" or "everyone" shall "be in awe of" or "shall fear" God. Thus on a broader scale, the meaning of this verse can be seen as "Everyone shall fear Me and My sabbaths you shall keep." By honoring and fearing our parents, we are honoring life and all living things; this leads us to understand and find a way to honor God. Honoring God, according to Rashi's interpretation, means honoring the Sabbath. This may imply the ritualistic aspect of our worship: saying the right prayer at the right time, wearing a tallit ort'fillin, or building a sukkah on Sukkot.
What about fearing our parents and God or being in awe of them? For some, to be in awe of our parents can mean that we never question their actions, that we accept and look up to them, that we trust them, that we believe 100 percent in their love and support, and that we have a sacred bond with them that strengthens us to brace the world. Through their teaching we learn right from wrong and the meaning of mitzvot, which ensures our continuity. Some of us revere our parents for giving us life, for sacrificing material things for themselves in order to provide for us. Still others find it difficult to revere their parents.
In the late twentieth century we lived in a world without awe. We questioned everything and everyone. Nothing was sacred. Some of us grew up without fearing God. Others believed in the greatness of the self (the "me" generation), the greatness of man. In contrast, K'doshim teaches that by performing the mitzvah of honoring and revering our parents, we also revere God. This leads us to perform more mitzvot toward tikkun olam, "repair of the world." In so doing, we bring honor to our God, to our parents, and even to ourselves.
By the Way
What is "fear" and what is "honor"? "Fear" means that the son is not to stand in his father's place, nor sit in his place; not to contradict him, nor to tip the scales against him. "Honor" means that the son must supply his father with food and drink, provide him with clothes and footwear, and assist his coming in or going out of the house. (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 31b)
If anyone insults either father or mother, that person shall be put to death; that person has insulted father and mother and retains the bloodguilt. (Leviticus 20:9)
What do you feel makes the distinction, if any, between honor and fear? Do you agree with the interpretation in Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin cited above?
In the same Torah portion, K'doshim, there are many rules regarding family relations and interactions. Do you agree with Leviticus 20:9 above? What would constitute an insult to you?
Are there any circumstances that might justify a lack of reverence or honor for our parents?
Cantor Miriam Eskenasy is the spiritual leader at Temple Israel in Gary, Indiana.
Acharei Mot, Leviticus 16:1–18:30
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 858–888; Revised Edition, pp. 769–794;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 679–700
K’doshim, Leviticus 19:1-20:27
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 894-907; Revised Edition, pp. 797-813;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 701-722