Friday, April 25, 2008

Rami on the Fifth Commandment

The Fifth Commandment seems simple enough: "Honor your father and your mother, that you may long endure on the land that HaShem your God is assigning to you" (Exodus 20:12). Yet it raises two questions that merit investigation: What does it mean to “honor” our parents, and Why will this result in our enduring in the Promised Land?

Let me address the first question here and see where our conversation goes.

While the commandment itself doesn’t define what “honor” means we can get some sense of the matter from other Torah passages. For example, children are forbidden to strike or curse their parents, and those that do so are to be put to death (Exodus 21:15, 17; Leviticus 20:9); and children are forbidden to mock their fathers or disobey their mothers (Proverbs 30:17). The rabbis latter added a host of other rulings regarding honoring parents: children must provide needy parents with food, drink, clothing, shelter, and take them to and from their homes when they are infirm (Kidushin 31b).

While all these behaviors are meritorious, the one thing one might expect to find is blatantly missing: nowhere are children commanded to love their parents.

I have heard it said that it is impossible to command love of parents, because love is an emotion and emotions are outside one’s control. You can command behavior not feelings, and that is why the Bible focuses on behavior. This makes sense when taken out of context, but since the Bible does command love—love of God, neighbor, stranger, and enemy— it clearly isn’t afraid of commanding emotions. So why not do so in the case of parents?

I have also been told that love for one’s parents is so natural that a command to that effect would be superfluous. But we know too much about human behavior to find this compelling. And, if doing what comes naturally makes commandments unnecessary, why outlaw sex with one’s mother since very few people are inclined to do that in the first place?

I have been told that the Fifth Commandment corrects the tendency to value love over care. People did naturally love their parents, but that love didn’t necessarily translate into honor and respect, so the Bible made sure to command these explicitly.

I find none of these arguments convincing. For me the meaning of the Fifth Commandment is this: It is easier to love strangers than intimates. It is easier to ignore or excuse the faults of people you rarely see, while obsessing on the faults of those whom you see regularly. The closer you are to people, the harder it is to love them. So don’t worry about loving your parents, simply make sure you take care of them.

This is harsh, but maybe true. I can see how people can hold a grudge against one or both parents and use that grudge to excuse ill-treatment and dishonor. “What did my dad ever do for me that I should go out of my way to see that he is taken care of?” “My mother abused or ignored me as a kid, why should I bother with her welfare now that she is old?”

And the grudge doesn’t even have to be real. The ego only cares for itself, and will find any obligation to care for others, unless doing so somehow benefits the ego as well, to be annoying and meddlesome. So the ego will blow some minor childhood incident out of proportion to excuse indifference to the welfare of one’s parents.

I have more to say about this, but let me catch my breath and give you a chance to jump in.

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