Why 5th Commandment should be No. 1 priority

Exodus 18:1-20:23
Isaiah 6:1-7:6, 9:5-6

Families often experience tension between the roles played by children and parents, even when moving from one role to another. For example, Abraham Mendelssohn, son of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, and father of composer Felix Mendelssohn, described the ambiguous role in which he found himself with this terse comment:

“Formerly, I was my father’s son, now I am my son’s father.” Humorist Sam Levenson further articulated the difficulty of being sandwiched between a parent and a child: “When I was a boy I used to do what my father wanted. Now I have to do what my boy wants. My problem is: When am I going to do what I want?”

Utilizing the Bible’s long view of lives portrayed in its pages, a student of the Torah has the opportunity to witness the transition from childhood to parenthood of Isaac, Leah, Joseph, Moses and others. Their lives provide a vantage point that enables a reader to see the past and future at the same moment. Parents who remember the pitfalls of being children are often overcome with tears and laughter when they recall their own youth. Suddenly, they may see their own parents in a new and more favorable light.

Henry Ward Beecher summed up this opportunity to stand at the crossroads of time: “We never know the love of the parent till we become parents ourselves. When we first bend over the cradle of our own child, God throws back the temple door, and reveals to us the sacredness and mystery of father’s and mother’s love to ourselves.”

Unfortunately in the short view, individuals who transition from being children to parents often have difficulty visualizing themselves at any juncture other than their current one. If they could, they might be more sympathetic to the struggles of both their parents and their children. It is no wonder that sacred Jewish texts are filled with admonitions of how one generation ought to behave toward another.

For example, the Talmud instructs that a parent is obligated to circumcise, educate, arrange a suitable marriage partner, teach a trade and provide swimming lessons (Kiddushin 29a). Conversely, the commandment “Honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12), and “You shall revere (literally “fear”) your mother and father” (Leviticus 19:3) is fulfilled in different ways. For example, the rabbis taught that a child must not stand in his father’s place, sit in his accustomed seat, contradict his words or judge him unfairly, but must provide food, drink, clothing and assistance when a parent needs help entering or leaving home (Kiddushin 31b).

Furthermore, the rabbis defined the fulfillment of the Fifth Commandment as providing the blessing of long life to those who observe it. In addition, the Talmud suggests that a child must not do anything disrespectful or shame a parent, even if the parent is wrong or behaves in an inappropriate way (Kiddushin 32a). The overarching principle is that parents deserve the honor that is given to God, but curiously, the texts rarely, if ever, speak about love.

Saadia Gaon’s Torah commentary is representative of texts that focus more on honor than on love. He suggested that the observance of the Fifth Commandment is more important than the other nine because “If you honor your parents, your children will honor you.” Such focus raises the question of how to follow the Fifth Commandment, especially when parents and/or children feel that the other has done little to earn love.

The closing line in the movie “I Never Sang for My Father” best summarizes this predicament. In recognition that the main protagonist’s tumultuous relationship with his father did not end with the father’s death, the narrator concludes: “Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind toward some resolution which it never finds.”

When considering the obligation to observe the Fifth Commandment, parents and children need to be reminded that the commandment mandates honor but not love. In this way, it is possible to honor parents and pay them respect, even when love is absent. Thus, focusing on honor rather than love enables a Jew who values the fulfillment of mitzvot to observe the Fifth Commandment without guilt.

Stephen S. Pearce is senior rabbi at the Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.