Parshat Lech Lecha: Honoring Parents

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Lech Lecha
06 Nov 2008

The command to Avram to journey to the land of Israel (Bereshit 12:1) immediately follows the news of Terach’s death at the age of 205. Although Avram’s sojourn actually took place decades before his father’s death, the Author of the Torah arranged the verses in this way so as not to overemphasize the fact that in order to fulfill His command, Avram had to leave Terach and neglect the obligation to honor his father. (Bereshit Rabba.)

The Torah obligation to honor our parents includes two basic aspects: honor and reverence. The mitzva of “honor”, taking care of physical needs, is the fifth commandment (Shemot 20:12); the mitzva of reverence is taught in Kedoshim: “Each person shall revere his mother and his father, and you shall observe my Sabbaths; I am HaShem your G-d.” (Vayikra 10:3.) Reverence is expressed by showing that we are not equals with our parents: we never call them by first name, occupy their special place, argue with them as equals, and so on.

Honoring our parents is a natural expression of the gratitude we feel towards them for bringing us into the world, and for the immense effort they put into raising us (if we are raised by our biological parents). (Sefer HaChinukh.) The idea of gratitude is a compelling explanation for the basic obligations of “honor”. Feeding, dressing, and accompanying – are these not the basic duties that parents fulfill towards their children? It is only natural that the grateful child should perform these same duties for the parents.

However, gratitude does not necessarily imply reverence. And our Sages gave this mitzva an immense importance which seems beyond the scope of ordinary gratitude. They tell us that the honor of parents “is compared to the honor of the Creator” (Kiddushin 30b). The reason, the gemara explains, is that the parents are HaShem’s partners in the formation of the child: “There are three partners in [the formation of] man: the Holy One blessed be He, and his father, and his mother.”

The idea of “partnership” suggests that the parents’ contribution is more than physical or biological. The human spirit, the complete human being, is also formed with the participation of the parents. Chasidic thought describes the parents’ conduct as creating a spiritual “garment” for the soul. And Rav Nachman explains that this parental influence doesn’t end when the child is formed but continues throughout life (Likutei Halakhot, Hilkhot Kibud Av vaEm).

This human partnership with Hashem in the most sublime task of all, the breathing of a soul into flesh and blood, is an awesome responsibility for the parents, and at the same time should elicit in the child awe and reverence towards the father and mother.

Honor of Parents & the Shabbat

The verse which commands us to revere our parents also admonishes us to keep the Shabbat. Our Sages learned from this conjunction that honoring parents may not be at the expense of neglecting other Torah obligations. After all, the parent also is obligated to carry out the mitzvot. (Rashi.)

The fact that specifically the mitzva of Shabbat is chosen to illustrate this message suggests some inner connection between honoring parents and Shabbat. This idea is reinforced by a parallel structure in the Ten Commandments: Shabbat is the fourth commandment, honoring parents the fifth (Rashbam on Vayikra 10:3). One such connection is that these two mitzvot represent man as a partner in creation.

The Torah tells us that HaShem breathed a living soul into the first man (Bereshit 2:7). But our Sages tell us that ever since, HaShem’s infusion of the soul into a human being is carried out in partnership with the father and mother, as we just learned.

The Torah tells us that HaShem rested on the first Shabbat. But the fact that we are required, or even able, to imitate His rest on an ongoing basis by our weekly human rest is only because there is a likeness between our creative activity and HaShem’s creation of the world. Our Sages learn that HaShem made the world incomplete so that human beings would have the ability to participate in the process of creation (Tanchuma on Bereshit 2:3).

So regarding Shabbat also we could say that our honor as Jews is likened to that of the Creator. After all, our labor and rest are likened to His. By refraining from forbidden labors, we are showing awe at our own creative powers!

The verse reminds us that despite the seeming comparability of the two commandments, ultimately keeping Shabbat, or any other mitzva, must take preference over honoring parents, because the parents also are obligated in the mitzvot. Hashem does allow us to participate in the process of human and material creation and as it were likens our own honor to His, but ultimately we must recognize our utter subservience to HaShem. It is unthinkable to truly equate or even compare the honor and reverence due our fellow man to that we owe to HaShem.

Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh.

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