Parshat Va’etchanan: Honoring Parents

“Honor you father and your mother as Hashem your G-d has commanded you, so that you will lengthen your days and so that it will be good for you on the land that Hashem your G-d has given to you.” (Devarim 5:16)

In this week’s parasha, Moshe reviews the Decalogue. Our passage states the obligation to honor one’s mother and father.

The Talmud in Tractate Kiddushin asks an interesting question. In order to understand this question a brief introduction is needed. There are two commandments regarding our basic obligations towards our parents. Our passage is the source for the obligation to honor our parents. However, we are also obligated to fear our parents. The Torah tells us, “Every person must fear his mother and father.”[1] What are the two obligations outlined in these two commandments? How does the obligation to honor our parents differ from the obligation to fear our parents? Maimonides discusses this issue. He explains that the commandment to fear our parents prohibits us from sitting in our parent’s place, contradiction our parents, referring to them by their first names and similar behaviors. The commandment to honor our parents obligates us to care for our parents. We are obligated to make sure that our parents are provided with food and clothing. The mitzvah to honor our parents also creates a general obligation to serve our parents.[2] In short, the obligation to fear our parents requires that we treat our parents with reverence. The mitzvah to honor our parents requires that we care for their needs.

The Talmud’s discussion begins with a simple observation. The commandment – in our parasha – to honor our parents places the father before the mother. In contrast, the obligation to fear our parents places the mother before the father. The Talmud asks the obvious question. Why in discussing the commandment to fear our parents is the mother placed before the father but in discussing the commandment to honor our parents the father is placed before the mother?

Before considering the Talmud’s response, it is important to acknowledge that the Talmud’s comments assume a family in which the father and mother have very specific and different roles. In our society, these roles are not as clearly demarcated. So, the observations of the Sages may need some adaptation for our times. But they are still very relevant. The Talmud comment will be more contemporary if we understand them as reference to parenting models rather than gender specific references. In other words, the role that the Talmud assigns to the mother should be understood as a parenting role which today we may find assumed by the father or shared by each parent. Similarly, the role that the Talmud associates with the father may today be assumed by either parent or shared by both.

The Sages observed that the child – in the family that they envisioned – typically experiences a different relationship with his/her mother and father. They comment that the Creator recognizes that the love that we feel for our mothers comes to us more easily and naturally than the love we should feel for our fathers. After all, it is typical for the mother to be more demonstrative in expressing affection. The child responds with a reciprocal, deep and enduring love for his/her mother. In turn, the child’s love engenders a desire to care for his/her mother. As explained above, the obligation to honor our parents is essentially a requirement to assure that they receive proper care. It is an expression of our love. In short, the child has a natural desire to fulfill the duties that the Torah includes in the mitzvah to honor our parents. The desire to fulfill these duties in regards to one’s father is not as natural.

The Sages also observed that the father is responsible to teach his son Torah. Therefore, fear and reverence for one’s father is more natural than fear and reverence for one’s mother. The reverence that is required by the commandment to fear our parents is a natural expression of our relationship with our fathers.[3]

In other words, the Torah recognizes a natural tendency for the child to honor his/her mother and to fear his/her father. We do not have the same natural inclinations to honor our fathers and to fear our mothers. However, we are not permitted to follow this natural inclination. We must honor our fathers and fear our mothers.

Rav Yosef Dov Soleveitchik Zt”l was fascinated with the Talmud’s contention that the child’s feeling of love develop more naturally for one’s mother. Does the child not appreciate all of the efforts that his/her father makes on his/her behalf? Why does the child not feel a reciprocal love his/her father?

Rav Soloveitchik observed that this discussion in the Talmud follows a briyta – a teaching of the Sages – that delineates the obligations of a father towards his child. The Sages instruct us that among the father’s responsibilities towards his son are the obligations to teach him Torah, to support him in finding a wife, to teach him a trade, and to teach him to swim.[4] Rav Soloveitchik observed that these elements of the father’s obligation have a specific theme. He must teach his son Torah, a trade and to swim. All of these areas of instruction are designed to instill within the child the ability to achieve independence and self-reliance. Certainly, helping a child begin a family is an expression of this same theme. Rav Soloveitchik concluded that the Sages regarded this as the primary role of the father in the raising of the child. It is the father’s responsibility to foster in the child independence and self-reliance.

Rav Soloveitchik observed that this relationship between the father and his child inevitably communicates a mixed or confusing message to the child. The child does recognize and acknowledge the love of his/her father. But at the same time, the father’s role of fostering independence results in the father making demands and establishing expectations. The father often feels he cannot coattail or indulge his child. The child perceives a harshness or distance in his/her father that is difficult to reconcile with the love that the child knows the father feels.

This relationship is very different from the relationship that the child experiences with his/her mother or mother-figure. The mother’s role is not to push the child towards adulthood and independence. Instead, the mother is more indulgent. Her love for her child is expressed more demonstratively and intensely. As a result, the child’s feelings towards his/her mother are less ambivalent. The love that the child receives from the mother is unambiguous and unconditional. In this relationship, the child does not sense the harshness or demands that characterize the relationship with his/her father or father figure. The child responds to the obvious love communicated by his/her mother with a sense of devotion and affection that is far less ambivalent than the child’s feelings towards his/her father.

But, in truth, the father does not love the child less than the mother. Instead, this love finds expression in a different form. The mother’s love may be more demonstrably communicated. But it is the father’s love that motivates him to take on the difficult task of teaching his child and making demands. It is only because of this love that the father figure is willing to endure the conflicts and friction that are often the result from the demands and the expectations that he places upon his child.

These feeling towards our parents develop during childhood. As we mature, to some extent, our understanding of the roles and efforts of our parents develops and matures. But despite our more mature views and understanding, it is often difficult to completely alter the feelings we developed as children. So, even as we mature into adults, we may tend to more naturally feel affection for our mothers and reverence for our fathers.[5]

Let us reconsider the comments of the Talmud. As explained above, the message of the Torah is that we are not permitted to follow this natural inclination. We must honor our fathers and fear our mothers. It seems that according to Rav Soloveitchik, the Torah is telling us a profound and far-reaching idea. The feelings that we develop towards our parents do not dissipate as we mature into adults. We advance cognitively. But many of the feelings that we develop as children remain with us into adulthood. As a result, as adults, we experience a sort of confusion. We cannot easily outgrow or abandon the feelings that we develop as children. But as we become more mature and become parents ourselves we recognize that these feelings are simplistic and based upon immature perceptions developed in childhood. We are trapped between the feelings developed in childhood and the cognitive perceptions developed in adulthood.

Essentially, the commandments to honor our fathers – as we do our mothers – and to revere our mothers – as we do our fathers – admonish us to accept that our feelings are not based upon a mature and accurate appraisal of the roles that our parents have played in our development. In other words, we must recognize that although our feelings are intense and very real to us, these feelings do not reflect an accurate mature appraisal of the reality of our parents’ love and concern for our well-being.

[1] Sefer VaYikra 19:3.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Mamrim 6:3.

[3] Mesechet Kiddushin 30b-31a.

[4] Mesechet Kiddushin 29a.

[5] Rav Solomon Maimon’s recollections of the comments of Rav Soloveitchik.