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The Essential Component of Jewish Continuity

Honor Your Parents

By TorahLab

Honor your father and mother so that you will have long days on the land which God gave to you (Ten Commandments).
Out of 613 mitzvos, this is one of the two that carry with it a longevity incentive. If I honor my parents I will live long.
A closer look at the wording seems to imply something different. “Long life on the land.” The “land” refers to the Land of Israel. Why is the location of my long life pertinent? Why should the reward for this mitzvah specify the land of Israel?
I would like to offer a rather unconventional interpretation to a very conventional verse.
Perhaps the above mentioned mitzvah does not refer to longevity. Instead, at issue here is the secret of the longevity in fact the eternity of the people of Israel.
In the journal, “Dos Yiddische Vort”, Rabbi Moshe Sherer, the head of the Agudas Israel in America, describes how he was traveling by plane, together with Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky of blessed memory, to New York from a world gathering of Agudas Israel in Jerusalem. Rabbi Sherer was sitting in the row behind Rabbi Kaminetzky. Next to Rabbi Kaminetzky was Yeruham Meshel, then general secretary of the Histadrut, the Israeli Labor Federation.
Mr. Meshel and Rabbi Kaminetzky had a conversation during the trip, which Rabbi Sherer could overhear. Mr. Meshel, not a religious Jew, was asking Rabbi Kaminetzky many questions about Judaism, all of which Rabbi Kaminetzky answered.
Finally, as the plane landed in New York, Rabbi Kaminetzky asked Mr. Meshel, “Is there anything I have said to you in the course of our whole conversation which might cause you to change your way of life to be an observant Jew?”
“No,” Mr. Meshel answered, “there is nothing in what you said that might cause me to change my lifestyle. However, there is something you did not say which might make me change my mind – explain how it is that your son behaves as he does.”
Indeed, for most of the trip, Rabbi Kaminetzky’s son, instead of remaining in his own seat, stood in the aisle next to his father, tending to his comfort, rearranging his cushions, bringing him something to drink, and so on.
“I wouldn’t dream of asking my children to do anything for me. What is there in Judaism that gets your son to behave in this way?”
“It’s very simple”, replied the rabbi, “and I can explain it to you briefly. In your outlook, the emphasis is on human progress, human improvement. This means that you look at your grandparents as primitive, as living in the dark ages, and your parents also, to a lesser extent. It also means that your children, in turn, look at you as backward. So why should they show you honor? In our outlook, it is the opposite. Each generation that is born is one step further removed from the Revelation of Sinai, and as generations pass the light of Revelation gets progressively dimmer. This means that each person honors his parents as being one generation closer to Sinai.”
In its broadest sense the mitzvah of honoring our parents entails a basic respect for the previous generation. I view my parents and their generation as a valuable asset to my life and society. They are one step closer to the mountain, to the source of wisdom.
The promise of the Torah is not merely that I will live an extra few years in the merit of bringing my father a cup of tea. The agreement is that the people of Israel will carry on as long as we are connected to the past. If we recognize the importance of the generation which came before us, if we respect the past, we can look forward to the future. This is how we will live a long life in the land of Israel that God gave to us.
Let us define the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents. A Talmudic definition might be to “bring them food and drink, stand up when they enter the room, do not sit in their place, etc.” while it’s true that these actions are merely manifestations or symptoms of the mitzvah. The actual mitzvah in the Torah is labeled as “kabed.” This usually translates as “honor” or “respect”. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch teaches that the word is also related to the word “heavy” or more appropriately, “serious”. The mitzvah might read, “Take your parents seriously”.
All of us have found ourselves in a room full of strangers. If there isn’t a particularly nice person around we will feel very uncomfortable. This feeling comes from the fact that our presence is as if non-existent, kal, light, and the opposite of Kabed. A very important person, would automatically be taken very seriously, kabed.
We have an obligation to make our parents important. To this end, suggests the Talmud, serve them food and drink, acknowledge their presence by standing up for them, do not call them by their first names, etc.
A common halachic error arises. Is there a mitzvah to listen to ones parents? Is obedience part of this mitzvah? The answer is, probably not. Although I have to show respect in every way possible to my parents and the generation from which I come, this does not obligate me in any way to heed their advice.
Shulchan Aruch brings a case of a father who insists that his son not marry a particular woman. Exclaims the Rama, “One does not have to listen to him.” Although some authorities claim that this is only true in the case of marriage, most early halachists feel that there is never a mitzvah to heed ones parents’ advice. Even though to betray them in their presence would be disrespectful, there is no obligation for obedience. Rabbi Akiva Eiger concludes that although there is no obligation to abide by a parent’s decision, by doing so, one fulfills the mitzvah of giving pleasure to ones parents.
What do we do when honoring our parents gets expensive? There is an argument in the Talmud whether one has to give honor with ones own money or with the parents money. For instance, if my father asks me for a cup of coffee, do I pay or does he? The Shulchan Aruch decides that, although the son is obligated to honor his parents despite being inconvenienced, he has no obligation to spend his own money. There is a story about a son who asked the rabbi if he has to spend money on the train fare to visit his mother in a neighboring town. The rabbi told him that he doesn’t have to spend any money at all, he could walk there.
The Talmud tells a story about a certain gentile by the name of Ama ben Nesina. He was running a business and was approached by a group of rabbis who wished to purchase a precious jewel for the garments of the High Priest. Ama was of course very eager to sell but had a problem. The key he needed was under the pillow of his sleeping father. Ama said to the rabbis, I’d love to make the sale but I can’t wake up my father. The eager rabbis offered him more money and kept raising the price, but Ama wouldn’t hear of it. Finally the rabbis left. When they came back on a different day Ama said he would be honored to sell the rabbis the stone. They handed him the last amount they had offered, but Ama would not take it. He was willing to take only the amount they had originally offered. The next year, states the Talmud, a Red Heifer was born in Ama’s farm. This is a very valuable cow and Ama made back all the money that he had originally given up.
Why didn’t he awaken his father? He was not required to endure a financial loss for his father’s sake. The Ran answers that, even though one does not have to spend money to give honor to ones parents, one must forego earning it. This may possibly mean that if in order to serve one’s parents, one must close one’s business, then one is obligated to do so.

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