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Parshot/Festivals

Honour your parents even if you aren’t grateful to them

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The ten commandments are perhaps the most famous part of the Torah. They appear first in the book of Shemos/Exodus, and they are repeated in this week’s Torah portion as Moses continues to recount the history of the Jewish nation since the Exodus.

Respected by Jews and non-Jews alike, the ten commandments are touted as the guide for moral and ethical living. In truth, they are all that and more. But first and foremost, they are a statement of G-d’s expectations of us. If we count the ten commandments, we see that there aren’t ten mitzvot, but quite a few more. They are ten statements from G-d as to how we should define our relationship with Him. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the fifth commandment, “Honour your father and mother as G-d, your G-d, has commanded you.” (5:16)

“As G-d has commanded you,” indicates that the commandment to honour parents had already been given to us. This was actually the case with most of the commandments, they weren’t new revelations to the Jews. The instruction to honour our parents was first given to us at a place called Marah on the way to Mount Sinai [Shemot 15:25], so why is it repeated in the ten commandments?

Logic would explain that the commandment of honouring our parents is reciprocation for the care they bestowed upon us as children. Torah, however, regards this as an erroneous rationale. By the time the Jewish people reached Mount Sinai, they were living a completely miraculous existence. Everyone, young and old, children and parents, were sustained through the manna which fell from heaven. Their clothes miraculously grew with them, and were cleaned and pressed by the clouds of heaven. The parents didn’t have to work to earn a living in order to be able to provide for their children. It was under these circumstances that G-d instructed us to honour our parents.

So, honouring parents isn’t an act of reciprocity in which parents are paid back by their children, but even when they do nothing for their children, they must be honoured because G-d has instructed us to do so. When teenagers sometimes complain to me about their parents, I point out that it takes three to have a child, two parents and G -d. We all know times when, inexplicably, parents unfortunately can’t have children in spite of the best medical care, and on the other hand, parents who have had children in spite of their best intentions not to do so.

G-d is the one who gives the blessing of children, and for each and every child, He chooses the parents for that child. The ten commandments are statements in our belief in G-d. They are unlike any other moral code. They are a G-dly code that we should observe not because it makes sense or fits with our sentiments, but because it’s a recognition of G-d’s guidance and benevolence to us even when we don’t always understand His ways.

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