The Messiness of the Fifth Commandment (Parashat Yitro)

The Messiness of the Fifth Commandment (Parashat Yitro)

Western society teaches us that the Ten Commandments, found in this week’s Torah portion, are the most important religious precepts in the Torah. Though the Jewish tradition, over time, has worn down that claim, boldly proclaiming that there should be no hierarchy between any of the 613 commandments, in reality we are raised with the notion that there is something special about the precepts “do not murder,” “do not steal,” or “remember the Sabbath.”  

For the most part, we can easily fulfill these commands. It’s not hard to avoid idol worship or to tell the truth in court. However, even from a young age one of the most pervasive of the commandments and perhaps the most difficult to get right, is the command to honor our parents. The Torah states:

Honor your father and your mother, that you may long endure on the land that Adonai your God is assigning to you (Exodus 20:12).

This command is also the one we hear the most when we are children. When we talk back, when we fail to listen, when we are testy, angry, or insolent we are reminded about the importance of “honoring.” Ironically, at least as our Rabbis understand it, this command actually has nothing to do with childhood. Unlike the other commandments in this week’s portion, we don’t really have the opportunity to begin honoring our parents until they get older.


The Torah uses two primary verbs to explain our relationship to our parents. The Ten Commandments impels us to “honor” them (kavod). However, later in the Torah, we are told to “revere” or “fear” them (yirah). Since our Rabbis hate ambiguity, they worked hard to define these terms and sort the myriad of interactions one might have with his or her parents into these two categories. They teach:

What exactly is “revering” and what exactly is “honoring”? “Revering”: one may not stand in his father’s place, one may not sit in his place, one may not contradict his father’s words, and he may not offer an opinion in a debate contrary to his father’s. “Honoring”: one must give him food and drink, one must dress him and cover/shelter him, and one must escort him in and out. (Kiddushin 31b-32a)

What this text teaches is that nearly every interaction we have with our parents when we are young should be view through the lens of reverence. Only when the dynamics shift and we become the more powerful person do we have the opportunity to honor. We don’t fulfill the fifth commandment when we listen and obey our parents. We enact the decree though something much more difficult: though setting up doctors appointments, through researching elder care facilities, through preparing meals, and through listening to many-told stories. The primary way we honor our parents is through the lens of compassion.

All this makes perfect sense. However, as we know, honoring our elderly parents isn’t always as easy as simply making them food and ensuring their medical care. Often, what makes “honoring” so difficult it often involves a series of tensions that have no easy answers: parental care vs financial sustainability, parental dignity vs our own, our parent’s needs vs our children’s desires.

I’ve seen these pressures play out in the lives of many of my congregants. Do we hire a night aid when insurance will not pay for one or do we sacrifice our own sleep for a loved one’s one-nightly bathroom trip? Will we ask for time off from work for a hospital emergency, knowing that very soon we may soon end up in the same situation? Will we continue to care for our father or mother when disease has changed them and they are no longer the person we once knew?

Two thousand years ago, our ancient Rabbis struggled with these same tensions. They asked the question: what happens if one’s father is standing on a pier, about to throw his money purse into the sea (Talmud Kiddushin 32a)? Should his son make a scene if that will embarrass his parent? The answer is primarily no. If the change purse is his father’s, even if the son stands to inherit it someday, he must submit. It doesn’t matter if his father is of sound mind or struggling with dementia. His father’s dignity take precedence. Honoring him is more important.

However, if the purse was his son’s then there is recourse. Writing a millennia later, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (know also as the Tur) explained that a son has every right to recover, in court, what is lost if the money belongs to him. Furthermore, he may even stop his father from throwing the purse into the water, risking embarrassing him, because alongside honoring one’s parent it is a value to protect one’s personal property. However, if he came to his father too late and the deed was done, the son cannot rebuke him. Since one cannot undo the past, a son should honor his father through silence. Protecting one’s assets are one thing. Shaming a parent for something he has no power to change is another.

This sacred mediation, between the mandate to honor and the need to care for oneself is what makes the fifth commandment so holy. What makes Jewish law so special is not that it is easy, but that it is complicated. We are often taught the phrase “the devil is in the details” but, in fact, it is the opposite. God lives within the tensions.

A child is warned to “honor” his parents. Little does he know that it will be years before he has the opportunity to fulfill this command. And when he does he will be faced with an opportunity. In the midst of the trepidations and unanswerable questions of “honoring” he will find himself in the midst of a three thousand year old argument about how to parse values. Soon, he will learn that the beauty of the Ten Commandments is that while each statement may be terse, all contain a portal into a universe of holy struggle.