Yitro: Why Are We Commanded to Honor Rather Than Love Our Parents?

The fifth commandment seems to fall in the wrong column.

Why is honoring a parent considered the equivalent of honoring God?


Table for Five: Yitro

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

Honor your father and your mother, in order that your days be lengthened on the land that the Lord, your God, is giving you. -Ex. 20:12


Romain Hini-Szlos, Photographer, rhsgallery.com

There’s a deeper meaning to this seemingly obvious directive: another way of honoring parents is to transmit their teaching to our own children, and to repeatedly mention their names to the next generation. My own children are still small, but if, in the future, one of my grandchildren quoted my teachings, I would consider it a profound and eternal way of honoring me. This is one way of keeping a family alive and thriving.

During the Pesach seder, Tunisian Jews pass the seder plate over each guest’s head and sing “Etmol”, about things passing over us. But whether Tunisian, Ashkenazi or any other identity, all practicing Jewish families have their own traditions, or minhagim, that would inspire curious children to ask, “Why do we do this?” Growing up, I was often told that our family was repeating a tradition because my grandparents did the same, and that when I grew up, I would understand.

Teaching values is important, but reenacting family traditions we deem rich and wise is also crucial to honoring our parents in life, and beyond.

This also explains why Jews never stop learning the annual Torah readings. To pause would mean that our forefathers themselves would cease to “live” and Judaism itself would come to an irreparable halt. We are taught Hashem is, was, and will be forever, but if we want to live forever, we should teach/act wisely and often.


Rabbi Natan Halevy, KahalJoseph.org

The first five of the Ten commandments encompass the spiritual edicts regarding the honor of Hashem. The second five discuss the ethical conduct between people. The 5th commandment is to “Honor our parents,” yet it is listed on the side of the spiritual commandments, those between man and his Creator. Hashem is hinting at something profound here: ‘By fulfilling this mitzvah it is considered as if I dwelled among you… As I commanded you regarding my honor, I command you to honor your parents’.

Hashem made a dwelling for His presence among us through our respectful treatment of our parents because they are Hashem’s partners in our creation. The details of this mitzvah are learned from the ways that we honor Hashem! Besides the rewards we receive for performing mitzvot, there are certain segulot – benefits that develop naturally from their fulfillment.

Hashem revealed part of the segula of honoring our parents, ‘in order that your days be lengthened upon the land which Hashem … has given you’. Lengthy days are a natural byproduct and benefit of this mitzvah. As this mitzvah is fulfilled in the physical realm, part of the benefit is lengthy days in this world. The quality and experience of our lives are also uplifted through the honoring of our parents. By honoring our parents physically, our soul becomes more connected to Hashem. Through connecting to Hashem, we are connecting to the source of life. ‘You who cleave to the Lord your God are alive, all of you, this day.’ (Deut. 4:4)


David Brandes, Screenwriter

The Torah commands us to Love the Stranger but only Honor the Father and Mother. Doesn’t that defy logic? Surely the people who give us life itself deserve no less than love?

We are taught that honoring parents actually refers to the notion of Hakarat Hatov – gratitude for the good received. In this context, honoring refers to outward symbols of respect and uprightness, not feelings. Rise when your parents enter the room.… and so on. You don’t have to love your parents to treat them with this kind of respect, and that’s the point. For most of us, parents are the paradigm of sacrifice and unconditional love. But what if your parent is destructive or cruel? How could you find love in your heart for a parent who abused you? If you took the commandment seriously, and you were unable to fulfill it, you would perpetually feel a sinner.

In such an extreme case the injunction to honor your parents would free you to feel what you feel (however intense) while still requiring you to respectfully acknowledge their relationship to you. It gives the son or daughter the possibility of acting like a mensch regardless of the circumstances. It allows the formal relationship to remain forever.

This distinction between love and honor reveals an extraordinary psychological insight in the Torah – illuminating once again, that life can only understood as a paradox, not an equation.


Rabbi Rebecca Schatz, Assistant Rabbi, Temple Beth Am

Honor your father and mother, the 5th commandment of 10, the hinge commandment from lofty and spiritual to human and personal. This commandment is “the middle” of a list, the switch from soulful to mindful. The command to honor our parents is multi-faceted: recognizing those who gave us physical life, the effect of our home environment and location, and acknowledging a superior source and authority.

We move from the commandment of Shabbat, of sustaining our spiritual souls, to this vague idea of honoring our life-givers. Rabbeinu Bachya points to the first four commandments as asking us to honor our Divine Parent. Subsequently the mitzvot turn to our home, our land, our actions and our relationships. Honoring our parents brings us back to our roots. We are only then able to hear fundamental commandments of not harming others and ultimately knowing “I am enough” without comparison to our neighbor.

Many have returned to family homes during this pandemic. For some that is a positive experience, though in some homes painful. God wants us to keep Shabbat and keep The Name sanctified. However, God also knows that to follow commandments, we must first know ourselves and ground our roots. From keeping Shabbos tables to removing weapons from our hands, we have commandments of foundation. May we return to these commandments as we proceed through life: rejoicing in ritual, behavioral, and spiritual uplift while reminding ourselves who we are, from whom and where we come, and, grounded, move upward from our roots.


Yehudit Garmaise, Journalist

The 10 commandments start with awareness of Hashem, our ultimate Creator and Provider, Who gave us life, provides for, loves, and cares for us, just as our parents did. Rav Avigdor Miller says that feeling and showing gratitude, respect, and loyalty towards our parents is both common sense and the word of Hashem.

Is our obligation to honor our parents affected if they express their Jewishness, their politics, their biases, and their emotions differently than we do? One response comes from Rashi, who tells us that from “Israel encamped there,” which is written in the singular, we learn that just before the Torah was given, the Jewish people encamped “as one man, with one heart.” Considering the variety of Jewish expressions and opinions, this moment of quiet togetherness is an under-rated miracle.

How did am Yisroel put aside their usual differences? The Lubavitcher Rebbe says that at the time of the Exodus, Jews were able to unite because everyone’s quintessential and internal Jewish aspect was revealed. The visibility of Jews’ holy and pure minds and hearts was what enabled them to attain such a united state of being that they merited to receive the Torah. When relating to our parents, we must remember to always keep in the forefront of our minds not only our gratitude for their love and care, but their holiness. Like the other 612 mitzvahs, valuing and honoring our parents elevates us and helps us to live our lives in the most fulfilling and loving way possible.

With thanks to Romain Hini-Szlos, Rabbi Natan Halevy, David Brandes, Rabbi Rebecca Schatz, and Yehudit Garmaise

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