To make the case for the Torah, I can think of no better verse with which to begin than the fifth of the Ten Commandments: “Honor your father and your mother so that your days be lengthened on the land that I give you.”
Proper understanding — and living by — this commandment is indispensable to making a good society.
And to properly understand it, perhaps the most important point to be made is that the Torah commands that we honor our mother and father; it never commands us to love them.
The psychological and moral insights here are remarkable. Given that the Torah does command love elsewhere — “Love your neighbor as yourself,” “Love the stranger,” “Love God with all your heart ...” — the absence of a commandment to love our parents is obviously deliberate. The Torah recognizes that there are people who, for whatever reasons, do not love their parents, and it does not command what cannot be observed.
But even more important from the Torah’s perspective is this: Whether or not we love our parents is irrelevant; what matters is that we show them honor.
As I wrote in my opening column on the case for the Torah, taking the Torah seriously means challenging and even upsetting many modern ideas. This is one of the biggest challenges to modern thinking: One of the Torah’s greatest teachings is that our feelings are far less important than our behavior.
If you don’t love your mother or father, that is sad. But you still owe them honorable conduct.
Let me offer an analogy. At every presidential press conference, all the members of the press rise from their seats when the president enters the room. They do this even if they dislike the president. They, therefore, do not stand because they feel like doing so. They do so because they honor the presidency.
That is why many of us were dismayed when Jon Stewart, while interviewing President Obama, called him “dude.” One wonders how many young people felt the same way. Not having been raised with the concept of showing deference to anyone, let alone not having been raised with the Ten Commandments, most young Americans probably thought nothing of it.
The great lesson of the fifth commandment is that in life we are obligated to behave in certain ways whether we feel like it or not.
Yes, there are some cases wherein honoring a parent may be impossible. No legal or moral code can account for every possible situation. Were Adolf Eichmann’s children obligated to honor their father, the architect of the Holocaust? And what about honoring parents who terribly physically abused their child — real physical abuse, not an occasional spanking — or who seek to harm a child who is now an adult?
But even here, one must be very careful about violating the fifth commandment. The moment one puts an asterisk on the commandment, it is an invitation to those who are angry with a parent to deem themselves as having been improperly treated and thereby avoid honoring a parent.
What does “honor” mean? The Hebrew word for “honor” (ka-bed) consists of the same letters as the Hebrew word for “heavy” (ka-ved). The only difference is a dot in the second letter.
In other words, “honor” means treating one’s parents with the gravity that their position demands. In one of many examples of the genius of Torah Hebrew, the opposite of “honor” is “kalel.” The word is always translated as “to curse,” but its literal meaning is to make light of (from the Hebrew “kal,” light). One curses one’s parents not only if one directs curses at them, but if one treats them lightly.
One honors one’s parents through speech and actions. We do not speak to our parents with the same abandon we do to our peers — no “dude” and no use of expletives are two examples. Actions would include getting up to greet a parent, offering them one’s seat, and maintaining regular contact with one’s parent(s) — such as calling them every week.
Honor does not mean blind obedience. In another great Torah lesson, one learns from Abraham, who disagreed and even argued with God, his Father in Heaven, that one can argue and disagree with one’s father on earth. But one also learns from the way in which Abraham did it how to differ with one’s parent respectfully.
This commandment is the only one that lists a reward for its fulfillment — long life as a viable society. Clearly, the Torah wants us to understand that a society in which children cease showing honor to their parents will cease to be a functioning society. Its days will be numbered.
This makes one worry about America, where, too often, parents do not demand respect from, but seek to be loved by, their children.
One consequence is a large number of adult children who do not honor their parents. An especially painful example is the number of adult children who have severed contact with a mother or father.
That is horribly painful to a parent, but the child who does not honor a parent will also suffer. First, not honoring one’s parents almost guarantees that a child will grow up to be a narcissist. Second, when such children become parents, they may in turn receive the same disrespectful treatment from their children, thanks to the example they have set. And third, there is the guilt that adult children suffer when they realize their mistake in not treating their own parents better, often after the parents are deceased.
It is difficult to overstate the significance of the commandment to honor one’s parents — to parents, to children and to society.
It remains vital. Too many parents seek to be loved by their children and do not demand that their children honor them. Sadly, these parents usually end up being neither loved nor honored.
Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host, columnist, author and public speaker. He can be heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) weekdays 9 a.m. to noon. His Web site is dennisprager.com.