Mishnas Chayim – Yitro: Awesome Responsibility

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Chevra Lomdei Mishna
21 Jan 2008

View pdf – Parashat Yitro 5768

Kindly take a moment to study MISHNAS CHAYIM in the merit of
חיים יצחק בן אברהם ע”ה
a fellow Jew who passed away with no relatives to arrange Torah study on behalf of his Neshamah.
The fifth of the Ten Commandments is kibbud av v’aim, the obligation to honor one’s parents. While the mitzvah seems simple enough on the surface of it, the Minchas Chinuch (Mitzvah 33:3) raises an interesting question which touches upon the very essence of this mitzvah.

Just about everybody can think of someone who neglected to treat his parents with the proper respect at some point in life. When this individual decides to do teshuvah, from whom should he ask forgiveness for this lapse? Although his parents would seem to be the most obvious candidates, the Minchas Chinuch points out that the issue may not be so simple.

Every mitzvah falls into one of two categories: bein odom laMakom (mitzvos between man and Hashem) or bein odom lachavairo (mitzvos between man and his fellow). Essentially, the Minchas Chinuch’s question boils down to this: To which category does kibbud av v’aim belong?

The offender—in this case, the neglectful child—must obviously ask forgiveness from the one he has wronged. If the mitzvah of kibbud av v’aim is considered bein odom lachavairo, the child must beseech his parents for their pardon. However, if the mitzvah is to be categorized as bein odom laMakom, then the offense is considered to have been perpetrated against Hashem, and forgiveness must be sought from Him.

Very nice, you may be thinking. But why on earth should I consider kibbud av v’aim to be a bein odom laMakom type of mitzvah? After all, it involves interpersonal relations with parents, including serving them, according them honor, etc. Obviously, the mitzvah is bein odom lachavairo!

Good point. Let us reexamine the two possibilities for the proper categorization of this mitzvah by turning to the words of Chazal. Perhaps they will shed light on the subject, enabling us to fully appreciate the question of the Minchas Chinuch.

The Gemara (Kiddushin 30b) highlights the importance of the mitzvah of kibbud av v’aim by equating the honor due to parents with the honor due to Hashem Himself. This comparison could be the basis of the statement of the Sefer Chareidim (ch. 9) that a person must view his parents as if they are members of the aristocracy. Whether one’s parent is a nuclear physicist or a zoo-keeper, in the Torah’s eyes he must be regarded by his offspring as a person of noble and elevated stature. Consequently, we can begin to appreciate the view of this mitzvah as bein odom laMakom; since, in essence, this commandment requires us to recognize that our parents’ status approaches the Divine.

On the other hand, the Mishnah in Bava Metzia (2:11) leads us to a deeper understanding of the second approach, classifying this mitzvah as bein adam lachavairo. In the midst of detailing the particulars of hashovas avaidah, the Mishnah drops a line which reveals something about the very essence of kibbud av v’aim. The Mishnah states:

אֲבֵדַת אָבִיו וַאֲבֵדַת רַבּוֹ, שֶׁל רַבּוֹ קוֹדֶמֶת, שֶׁאָבִיו הֵבִיאוֹ לָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה. וְרַבּוֹ שֶׁלִּמְּדוֹ חָכְמָה מֵבִיאוֹ לְחַיֵּי הָעוֹלָם הַבָּא.

“If someone encounters two lost objects, one belonging to his father, and the other belonging to his rebbi, priority should be given to his rebbi’s object. The reason (for this) is that although his father brought him into this world, his rebbi—who taught him Torah—has afforded him the ability to advance to the World to Come.”

Through its terminology, the Mishnah reveals a fundamental reason for a person to feel a sense of obligation to his father: because he “brought him into this world.” We are eternally beholden to our parents for granting us life; the least we can do to attempt to repay them is to accord them honor. (Nevertheless, one’s obligation to his rebbi is greater, since his rebbi brings him into the Next World, which is the better one by all accounts.)

This idea forms the basis of the Talmud Yerushalmi’s depiction of the obligation to honor parents as a form of payraon chov, repayment of a loan (Kiddushin ch.1). In other words, if we classify the mitzvah of kibbud av v’aim as bein odom l’chavero, an interpersonal mitzvah, its essence can be described as similar to a monetary obligation.

Whichever way you look at it, the question of the Minchas Chinuch has really come to life. Since a solid case can be made to relegate the mitzvah of kibbud av v’aim to either category, we can appreciate the Minchas Chinuch’s uncertainty in classifying it.

Although we may not have resolved the Minchas Chinuch’s question, hopefully, we have at least gained a heightened appreciation for the essence and importance of this mitzvah.

And I bet that our parents really appreciate that!

Mishnas Chayim is brought to you by Chevrah Lomdei Mishnah, a network of Torah scholars dedicated to bringing the merits of Mishnah study to the greater Jewish public. Encompassing Mishnah, Gemara, and variety of other services, Chevrah Lomdei Mishnah primarily assists mourners interested in acquiring the merit of Torah study for their loved ones. To learn more visit www.societyformishnahstudy.org.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.