Honoring your parents same as honoring God

This week, we read about the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, beginning with the declaration of the Ten Commandments — the building blocks for moral societies and religion.
We often take these commandments for granted, regarding them as the most straightforward and elementary precepts. However, their concise wording opens a sea of discussion in the attempt to define the parameters of each instruction and dig into its reasoning. How does one “remember” the Sabbath? In thought? A verbal recollection? What constitutes murder, and adultery?
We have one Torah scroll, but two classic tablets. The division into two tablets conveys the prime categories of commandments. The first five focus on one’s relationship with God; the next five relate to the rights and welfare of humans.
Some people are more inclined to be careful with the second group, emphasizing kind behavior toward people in their personal value system, but forgetting to nurture the first set of laws. Others are careful to perform the private rituals that enhance their consciousness of the divine, the quiet spiritual component of life, but neglect to show a pleasant face to the world — their fellow man. Both tablets are vital in Judaism.
Out of place?
The above categorization into two groups is clear, except for one commandment, which doesn’t seem to belong among the first five: “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12).
What is the quality of honor? Showing someone honor generally entails humility and admiration of specific virtues or deeds. Jewish tradition outlines the specific guidelines as it pertains to one’s parents — in thought, speech and action — and how to fulfill this important mitzvah.
It’s not always easy, especially when there is cause for resentment, as people tend to trace every personal struggle or psychological complexity to some form of neglect and damage by a parent during early childhood. And even when there is a smooth and loving relationship, the Talmud describes this as the most overlooked and hardest of all commandments to fulfill properly.
The next step in Torah study, after defining the parameters of each command, is seeking its basis and rationale: In this case, why should we honor our parents?
The biblical commentators, noting the placement of the fifth commandment, offer various interpretations. Nachmanides, in his commentary on this Torah portion (Yisro 20:13), explains that the command to honor parents rightfully belongs in the first group because honoring one’s parents is equivalent to honoring God. “For the sake of honoring the creator, someone is commanded to honor parents who contributed to his or her creation.”
Rabbi Aaron Halevi, however, in his Sefer Hachinuch (“Book of Education”), expounds on the logical basis for the mitzvah. There is a foundational principle in Judaism called hakarat hatov (acknowledging the good that someone has done for you) and expressing gratitude by acting kindly toward them. In this case, he explains, when someone considers that the parents are the cause for being and contemplates the toil and investments that parents made throughout one’s youth — how they clothed and fed, nurtured and cared, provided a home, an education and more — the natural inclination will be to express gratitude. It is only fitting to act toward them in the most respectful manner and help them in any way possible. Too often children grow up, get married and, in their preoccupation with their own ambitions, quickly forget all the years their parents toiled for them.
He continues to explain that when a person practices and instills this attitude of gratitude, they will naturally recognize the good that God has done for them. “For, by the same logic the creator is the ultimate cause for his existence, and that of his parents, and all his ancestors throughout history.” Internalizing these ideas enables one to be more attentive to a relationship with God.
Parents as partners
The two explanations of the rationale have subtle distinctions. If the basis is, as the latter suggests — instilling the trait of gratitude and applying it to God — the connection between honoring parents and honoring God is indirect. Nachmanides, however, implies an actual equivalence: The basis for honoring parents is purely because they “contributed to your creation.” This statement is reminiscent of the Talmud’s simplified yet profound statement: “There are three partners in the making of a person: the Holy One, the mother and the father. When someone honors his or her father and mother, the Holy One says, ‘I consider it is as if I am dwelling among them and they are honoring me.’”
Becoming “a partner” with the Creator is reserved for conceiving — not child rearing — because providing love and sustenance, emotional and physical support, to one’s child is more an act of independent will and skill. Bringing a child into this world, however, is not dependent on the parents’ effort and abilities, but rather taps into a transcendent force, which carries the breath of life, the human soul, to each child.
Bringing a new being into existence is perhaps the most wondrous ability that we possess among natural phenomena. Paradoxically, within the most physical lies a gateway to the infinite, very essence of the soul infinite.
The bridge
The rationale for the fifth commandment thus comprises two distinct aspects: There is a more perceptible reason entailing gratitude for all the good that our parents did for us. But even when this doesn’t apply, there is an underlying recognition that, regardless of their human frailties and flaws, these individuals put themselves in a position to “join” with God to bring us into this world. From a different angle, we honor God granting us life through acknowledging those who exercised the immeasurable power instilled in them, and in “partnership,” brought us into being.
This unique commandment is situated — both conceptually and visually — in the middle of the Decalogue; it serves as a bridge between the previous four precepts and the latter five because it relates to both groups. It is as much a spiritual practice as it is a social one.

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