A man named Rabbi Haim lived several centuries ago in the city of Worms, Germany. He had four sons, and when they grew up, he sent three of them to learn Torah under the great sage Rabbi Shlomo Luria (the Maharshal). The oldest, however, he needed at home to take care of him in his advanced age.
Sometime later, after an extended period of intensive Torah study, the three younger brothers returned home. The older brother was amazed, and jealous. He marveled at their knowledge, their level of scholarship, and their spiritual growth, and was saddened by having been deprived this opportunity. He wept in bitter anguish, and complained to his father that he was unable to become a scholar like his younger brothers.
“My dear son,” Rabbi Haim said, reassuringly, “because you stayed behind to care for me with such devotion, I bless you that you shall have children who will illuminate the earth!”
Sure enough, this young man would have a son named Rabbi Yehuda Loew, more commonly known as the Maharal of Prague, who was one of the important Torah figures in our history.
This story is just one of many that demonstrate the value and importance of the mitzvah of kibbud av va’em– honoring parents. Rabbi Haim was confident that his older son would not be denied any blessings by caring for his aging father instead of devoting himself to fulltime Torah learning, because he knew the Torah’s promise that honoring parents is rewarded with arichut yamim– “long life.” In his son’s case, he achieved “arichut yamim” in the form of a son whose Torah works would illuminate and inspire the Jewish world for centuries.
But in truth, we should not have to resort to such stories to appreciate the importance of this unique mitzvah. As even schoolchildren know, kibbud av va’emis included among the Aseret Hadibberot– the Ten Commandments – of which we read in Parashat Yitro and again later, in Parashat Vaethanan. Although we have 613 mitzvotto observe, the Ten Commandments are regarded as the foundation and basis of all the other commands. Indeed, the text of the Aseret Hadibberotcontains 620 letters, as these 10 commands form the cornerstone of the 613 Biblical commands and the seven mitzvotenacted by the sages. So significant are these 10 mitzvotthat, as the Gemara in Masechet Berachot tells, the sages initially sought to institute the daily reading of the Aseret Hadibberot. Although they ultimately decided against this provision, the fact that it was under serious consideration testifies to the singular importance of these mitzvot.
This should give us some sense of the importance accorded to kibbud av va’em, which is included among this “elite” group of foundational mitzvot.
A “Misplaced” Mitzvah?
In order to begin to understand the reason why this mitzvah is so significant, let us turn our attention to a question that was asked by many scholars throughout the ages. When we look at the structure of the Ten Commandments, we immediately recognize a clear split between the five commands engraved on the right stone tablet, and the five engraved on the left stone. The last five commandments, which appear on the left stone, all involve interpersonal relations, and forbid improper behavior towards our fellow: Murder, Adultery, Theft, False testimony, and Coveting other people’s possessions.
When we consider the first five commandments, we immediately discern that the first four include our basic obligations toward the Almighty: Belief in Gd, Idolatry, Uttering Gd’s Name in vain, and Shabbat observance.
And thus we find a clear, unmistakable division between the two fundamental categories of Torah law: our obligations toward Gd, and our obligations toward our fellow man.
The jarring exception to this otherwise perfect structure is kibbud av va’em. Why is this command, which governs our relationship to other people – specifically, our mothers and fathers – positioned in the first group of mitzvot, which deal with our obligations to Gd? How is the requirement to honor parents part of our responsibilities toward the Creator? Certainly, this mitzvah is not “misplaced,” Heaven forbid. It belongs right where it is. But why was it placed there?
To this we might add yet another question. Halachah states unequivocally that one must not obey his parents if they ask him to do something that entails a Torah violation. For example, if one’s parents insist that he come visit them on Shabbat, but they do not live within driving distance of his home and they do not have room for him to lodge with them, he may not drive there on Shabbat. This applies even to laws and prohibitions that are not generally treated with the same level of stringency as Shabbat observance.
On the one hand, this halachah is intuitive and readily understandable, for, as the sources explain, both a person and his parents are equally bound by Gd’s laws, and His law thus takes precedence. But on the other hand, if kibbud av va’emis of such importance and is included among the ten principal obligations of Torah law, perhaps it should override commands that are of “lesser” importance. Why does halachahallow, and even require, a person to disobey his parents to avoid transgressing a “minor” Torah law?
The Jet, the Screen, and the Apple
The Maggid of Dubnow told the following fable to explain why the obligation of honoring parents does not take precedence over other Torah laws – one which offers us a clearer insight into the essence of this mitzvah.
There was once a successful inventor who came up with three extraordinary inventions: a jet that could take a person anywhere in the world in minutes; a screen that allows a person to see what is happening at that moment anywhere in the world (granted, in 2013 we’re accustomed to such gadgets, but the Maggid told this story in the 18th century!!); and a special apple that could cure a patient of any illness simply by smelling its fragrance. When the inventor passed away, his three sons drew lots to determine who would inherit which creation, and each was happy and content with what he received.
One day, the son who inherited the screen decided to check to see what was happening in Buckingham Palace. He was alarmed to see doctors and nurses rushing in and out of the building, and members of the royal family wearing drawn, anxious faces. He soon figured out what was happening – the princess was gravely ill. Numerous different specialists were brought to the palace to treat the ailing girl, but none of them could find the right cure.
The man immediately ran over to his brother with the special apple.
“We need to get this apple to London immediately!” he exclaimed. “The princess is sick, and nobody can cure her!”
“London?!” the brother asked. “By the time we get there, the girl will be in the grave!” As soon as the words left his mouth, the two brothers realized the solution. They rushed to the third brother to ask if they could use his jet. Within minutes, the three brothers were by the entrance to the palace explaining to the guard that they had a remedy for the princess. The royal family was so desperate they were willing to try anything, and so they let the brothers in. The princess smelled the apple’s fragrance, and in just a few hours she fully recovered.
Soon thereafter, the king sent a telegram to the three brothers expressing his gratitude for their saving his daughter’s life.
“To show our appreciation,” the king said, “we would like to offer our daughter’s hand in marriage to any one of you.”
No sooner had the telegram been read than a bitter fight erupted between the brothers. Each claimed the right to marry the princess.
“Look,” said the brother with the screen, “I was the one who first saw that the princess was ill. If it wasn’t for me, we wouldn’t have even known that she was in trouble!”
“True,” the brother with the jet shot back, “but there’s no way we would have gotten there in time to save her if not for my jet!”
“So what?” the third brother retorted. “It was my apple that in the end saved her.”
As the argument persisted, with each brother becoming ever more convinced of the justness of his claim, they decided they had no choice but to consult with a rabbi for a solution. And the solution proposed by the rabbi was a simple and obvious one: they should go ask the princess whom she wishes to marry.
The three brothers came to the princess and asked her to decide which of them she would like to be her husband.
She chose the one with the apple.
“I am eternally indebted to all three of you,” she reverently said. “If it were not for the screen, you would not have known of my illness; if not for the jet, I would have been long gone before you got here; and of course the apple is what saved me. But from here on, I do not need the screen or the jet any longer. I will always be grateful to you two, but if I have to choose one of the three, I must choose the apple, which I will need again in case I ever fall ill in the future.”
The Maggid explained that the father, mother and Gd are to a person what the three brothers were to the princess. Each and every one of us owes our existence to all three, for, as the Talmud famously observes, those three are the “partners” in the creation of every human being. The parents create the person’s physical being, whereas Gd supplies the soul. For this reason, we must show respect and reverence to our parents and to the Almighty. But if one is, Heaven forbid, in a situation where he must choose one over the other, then the honor owed to Gd overrides the honor owed to a parent. Obviously one cannot live with the physical body provided by his parents, but once he has been born, his existence no longer depends on them. By contrast, Gd’s role in a person’s creation is something he will need at all times. We depend upon His grace each and every millisecond in order to continue living. And thus if a person is forced to select one “brother” over the others, he chooses Gd. He holds the “apple of life,” our souls, which we depend upon for our very existence at every moment throughout our lives.
Where the Two Tablets Converge
The Maggid’s parable reveals to us the fundamental, underlying message of the fifth commandment. “Honor your father and your mother” means showing respect to those who created us. And thus it refers not only to our two parents, but to the Almighty, as well.
Indeed, the Keli Yakar explains that this commandment appeared on the right tablet, among the laws between man and Gd, because kibbud av va’em is meant to lead us toward honor and fealty to Gd. By respecting our parents, we become sensitized to the need to give honor to those who gave us existence. And if this extends to those who provided our physical existence, then certainly, and all the more so, it extends to Gd, who provided us with our soul.
This is why kibbud av va’em is the fifth commandment, the one that forms a “bridge” between the first tablet and the second. In essence, it marks the point of convergence between the two realms of ben adam laMakom and ben adam lahavero. The obligation to honor parents, in its narrowest sense, governs our relationship to other people, but the goal extends even further, to our relationship with our Creator. The honor we show our parents is vitally important in its own right, but it also inspires us toward greater devotion and subservience to Gd. Indeed, Rabbi Yaakov Abuhatzera noted that the word “kabed,” with which the Torah formulates this command, has the numerical value of 26 – the same numerical value as the divine Name of Havayah, as the requirement to honor parents is integrally bound to the need to give honor to the Almighty.
Ultimately, then, the command to honor parents relates to the need to recognize the inestimable value of life, and particularly of the human soul. As the Keli Yakar explained, the goal of this mitzvah is to draw our attention to the debt we owe to Gd who endowed us with our sacred spirit, which gives us such lofty potential. Unlike the body, which is so severely limited in its capabilities and ultimately declines, the soul is capable of continuously growing, improving, developing and rising, and it exists forever. Each and every one of us, regardless of our current standing, has something precious which gives us such enormous potential for greatness. The Torah includes kibbud av va’em in the Ten Commandments to underscore the need to celebrate and appreciate the gift of life, and especially the gift of the eternal soul. The reward for kibbud av va’em is long life – because when we recognize the great gift of the soul, we recognize our capacity to earn eternal life by developing and refining that piece of holiness within us.
And so let us remember both aspects of this mitzvah. First, we must learn to recognize and appreciate the kindnesses performed for us by all other people, which of course begins with the appreciation we must show to our parents, who have done far more for us than anybody else. But in addition, let us learn to appreciate the greatest gift of all – the soul that Gd has given us, through which we earn eternity by ensuring to properly care for it, develop it and refine it throughout the entire course of our lives.