I would like to dedicate this shiur to the memory of my dear parents Motty Shamesזכרונו לברכה and Marilyn Shames הריני כפרת משכבה.
One of the most central mitzvoth of the Torah is to honor one’s parents. Its primary nature can be seen by the very inclusion in the aseret hadibrot in this week’s parsha. I would like to investigate the purpose of this fundamental mitzvah.
Let’s start with what it is not (and I apologize to all of our readers who are parents of adolescent children…). There doesn’t seem to be any obligation for a child to conduct themselves in accordance with the parents’ wishes. If a parent dreams of their child pursuing a specific career or living in a certain place, they are welcome to let the children know, but this does not create an imperative for the children. This being the case, we can imagine a situation in which the personal choices that a child makes may be very difficult for the parent but there is no violation of the mitzvah of kibbud av vaim.
The definition that is provided in the Gemara is to “feed, provide drink, to dress and cover, assist in getting in and out (of places)”. The focus is on the physical needs of the parent. The child is meant to provide any and all assistance to the parent who is not able to help themselves. The list in the Gemara is the exact same list that one would expect to find in a “guide to new parents” where the author would explain to the expectant parents what their obligation to their child will be. An infant is not able to navigate the simple daily activities in life and we expect the parents to guide and assist them. The reciprocal side of the relationship takes place when the parent is unable to perform those very same tasks – the child steps in and provides the exact same sense of safety, love and care for the parent. The rationale behind this mitzvah is self-evident; it is simply a more intense version of the general concept of veahavta lereach kamocha, loving our fellow Jews as we love ourselves. We don’t have to ask ourselves what we would want in such helpless situations, we already know, as we have been through them and benefited from our parents help. It is only proper to reciprocate.
However I think there is an additional level to this mitzvah. There are many examples where we see the requirement of kibud av vaim being relevant despite the fact that the parent gets nothing out of it all! One such example is mentioned in the gemara (Kiddushin31b):
One must honor him (the father) in his lifetime and after his death. How is this done in his lifetime? If one knows that his father is respected in a place that he needs to be in (Rashi) he should not say “send me for my sake” or “hasten this for my sake” or “let me go for my sake” rather it should all be stated “from my father’s sake”. How is this done after death? If he quotes his father, he should not say “so said my father” rather he should say “so said my father, my master, may I be an atonement for him”, and that is only in the first 12 months. After that he should say “of blessed memory to the world to come”.
In both scenarios the father is not there at all and would not seem to receive any direct benefit from the behavior of the child. (I am not including any metaphysical benefit that one could claim that the parent would enjoy after death. I know nothing about such subjects and I would prefer to learn the Gemara based on what we can see with our own eyes). I think this forces us into offering an additional aspect to the mitzvah.
I believe that we are being taught that part of kibbud av vaim is defining ourselves as the children of our parents. When arriving in a familiar location the individual introduces himself and defines his mission as his father’s son. That is my identity, and everything you do with me in mind, should be attributed to my parent. The parent may never know this happened but it is essential that the child recognize this and wear the badge proudly. Even after death the child remains the child, and sees himself as a tribute to their memory.
I think that this plays out in many other places as well.
The Gemara states that the honor one is to show to one’s parents is similar to the honor that we show to God. It would be blasphemous to suggest that God needs our gestures. Any honor that we pay to God is to define who we are; we are servants of Hakadosh Baruch Hu. There can be no greater statement of allegiance. In a similar, but more limited way we define ourselves as people who honor our parents.
While it is clear in the Gemara that a parent is able to relinquish their right vis-a-vis kibbud av vaim, the Rishonim point out that the child still has some form of obligation towards the parents. Had it been solely about the parents and providing assistance, why would any obligation remain at all? If the parent does not want help, the mitzvah should be null and void. The fact that some things remain points to this other concept of the mitzvah, defining the child as one who honors the parent.
When a close relative passes away the seven closest relatives (son, daughter, spouse, brother, sister, father and mother) must rend their clothes. In all cases one must do this as a demonstration of the mourning. However when it comes to all other relatives, one is allowed to change the clothes during shiva and need not tear the next item of clothing. However in the case of a parent, if one switches clothes the new ones must be ripped as well. This is described as kibbud av vaim. It is not enough to do the act of tearing the clothes but one enters a week where their very definition is a mourner for a parent, and that has to be obvious to all.
Finally, the mourning period for all other relatives is thirty days, however when it comes to a parent the process is completed only after 12 months. This, as well, is justified by the requirements of kibbud av vaim. Once again it does not seem that the parent benefits from the extra time observed by the child, rather I think that it is the child defining themselves as just that, the child. For the entire year the main identity of the individual is – the loving and respecting child of my parent.
I would even suggest that this is the basis of how we refer to people in all ceremonial realms and legal documents, so and so the son/ daughter of so and so. It is not simply because they had no last names back in the day, but rather when I am called to the Torah, testify in court or people pray on my behalf, I am proud to define myself as my parents’ child.
The Gemara states that this can be one of the most challenging mitzvoth. It is very demanding and is virtually limitless. On a personal note I can say that I cannot think of a more fulfilling and meaningful mitzvah.
Rav Shames (Motty and Marilyn’s boy)