Yitro: The Heaviness of Honoring Parents

February 3, 2015 at 10:46 pm | Posted in Yitro | 2 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

“Heavy, man!”

When we said that, back in the 1970’s, we meant that something was impressive, difficult, or profound, not to be taken lightly. The Hebrew word for “heavy”, kaveid, has even more shades of meaning in the book of Exodus/Shemot.

Moses at the Burning Bush by Rembrandt van Rijn

Moses at the Burning Bush
by Rembrandt van Rijn

When God tells Moses his mission at the burning bush, Moses objects that he cannot speak to the Israelites and the Pharaoh in Egypt because his tongue is kaveid.

But Moses said to God: Excuse me, my lord, I am not a man of words…because I am khevad mouth and khevad  tongue. (Exodus/Shemot 4:10)

khevad (כְבַד) = heavy of. (Another formation from the root verb kaveid, כָּבֵד.)

What does Moses mean by saying his mouth and tongue are heavy? Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki) wrote that Moses stammered or had a speech impediment.  His grandson Rashbam (12th-century Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir) wrote that Moses was no longer proficient in Egyptian. Either way, Moses’ speech is kaveid because it is slow and difficult.

When Moses and Aaron first ask Pharaoh to give the Israelites a three-day vacation to worship their god, Pharoah increases his laborers’ workload instead, saying:

Tikhebad, the work, upon the men, and they must do it, and they must not deal in lying words. (Exodus/Shemot 5:9)

tikhebad (תִּכְבַּד) = it will weigh heavily, let it be heavy, it must be a burden. (A form of the root verb kaveid, כָּבֵד.)

Pharoah’s heart (the seat of his thoughts and feelings, in Biblical Hebrew) also becomes heavy. After each divine miracle except the final one (the death of the firstborn), Pharaoh is tempted to let his slaves go on that three-day vacation. But then he reverts and refuses to change his economic and political system. Pharaoh’s heart is hardened six times, and made heavy (hakhebeid, הַכְבֵּד) five times. He is too stiff and too heavy to move.

Brick making Tomb of King  Rekhmire in Thebes

Brick making
Tomb of King Rekhmire in Thebes

Furthermore, the Torah describes four of the miraculous plagues (swarming insects, cattle disease, hail, and locusts) as kaveid, heavy, because they are so oppressive.

But when Pharaoh finally lets the Israelites and their fellow-travelers leave, we read:

And the Children of Israel journeyed from Ramses to Sukkot, about 600,000 strong men on foot, besides non-marchers. And also a mixed throng went up with them, and flocks and herds, very kaveid property. (Exodus/Shemot 12:37-38)

kaveid (כָּבֵד) = heavy, weighty, oppressive, impressive, magnificent.

For newly-freed slaves, they leave with a lot of property: their own livestock, and all the gold and silver objects the Egyptians gave them on their way out. As they march away, the abundance of their possessions is impressive.

God also wants to be impressive.  When the emigrants have entered the wilderness, God tells Moses that Pharoah’s army will pursue them, so that God can stage one last miracle at the Reed Sea.

…then ikavedah through Pharaoh and through all his army; … and the Egyptians will know that I am God. (Exodus 14:4, 14:17-18)

ikavedah (עִכָּבְדָה) = I will be recognized as important, I will be honored, I will be respected, I will appear magnificent. (A form of the root verb kaveid.)

The people reach Mount Sinai in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro (“his surplus”, the name of Moses’ father-in-law).  This is where God pronounces the Ten Commandments. The fifth commandment begins with the word kaveid.

Kabeid your father and your mother, so that your days will lengthen upon the soil that God, your god, is giving to you. (Exodus 20:12)

Kabeid (כַּבֵּד) = Honor! Respect! Treat as weighty, important!  (This imperative verb comes from the same root as the adjective kaveid.)

Honoring your parents sounds like a nice idea, but why is it one of God’s top ten rules?

In traditional commentary from the third century C.E. to the present, honoring your parents is a necessary step to honoring God, and neglecting your parents is an insult to God. One reason given is that your biological parents—and God—created you. However, the Talmud (Ketubot 103a) states that this commandment applies not only to biological parents, but also to step-parents and older brothers—and therefore, presumably, to adoptive parents.

The other traditional reason why honoring parents means honoring God is that parents must teach their children Jewish history and Torah. (Apparently reading books, including the Bible, is not enough; religious knowledge must be transmitted orally.) Children honor their parents by learning their religion and passing it on to the next generation.  Without this transmission, God would cease to be honored.

Underage children are supposed to honor their parents by learning Torah from them, and by obeying them (as long as the parental request does not contradict God’s will).

Adult children must honor their parents in other ways. The Talmud (Kiddushin 31b) explained that you honor your parents by making sure they have food, drink, clothing, and coverings, and by “leading them in and out”. (It was assumed that the responsible son continued living in his parents’ house, and so could always arrange to escort them.)

Rambam (12th-century Rabbi Moses Maimonides) added in his Mishneh Torah, book 14, that if a man’s parents are poor and their son is able to take care of them, he must do so. He must also treat his parents with the respect of a student for a teacher, performing personal services and rising before them. However, Rambam wrote, if a parent is mentally ill and the son can no longer bear the stress, he may move out and hire someone else to care for his parents.

All this deference and personal care, the commentary insists, is required regardless of whether your parents were kind to you as you grew up. Nowhere in the Torah are parents required to honor or love their children; they are only required to circumcise their sons, to teach their children God’s commandments, and to refrain from incest and child-sacrifice.

If your parents were kind to you, it is a natural human inclination to honor them. But even if your parents did not earn your gratitude or love, the commentary on the fifth of the Ten Commandments says you must still honor them—in order to honor God.

Maybe the fifth commandment adds “so that your days will lengthen” in order to encourage people to honor even difficult parents. A longer life would be an especially good reward if it gives you more years to enjoy life after your difficult parent has died.

Yet we can all observe that some of the most dutiful children die younger than some of the most neglectful.  A famous story in the Talmud (Chullin 142a) tells of a father who ordered his son to climb to the top of a building and bring down some chicks. The son “honored” his father by climbing up, and followed another Biblical rule that promises prolonged life by chasing away the mother bird before collecting her young.  On the way down the ladder, the son fell and died. The rabbis in the Talmud conclude that “there is no reward for precepts in this world”, and declare that the story is an argument in favor of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead.

Since the commandment says: so that your days will lengthen upon the soil that God, your god, is giving to you, Hirsch and other commentators explained that honoring parents would prolong the period of time when the Israelites got to live in the “Promised Land” of Canaan.

But the commandment in this week’s Torah portion uses the singular “you” throughout.  I think the only way your days might be lengthened because you honor your parents is if each day feels longer to you.  We can only hope that the day seems longer because it is fuller and richer, not because you can hardly wait for it to be over!

What kind of “honor” do we owe our parents today?

I think we should kabeid  (honor) our own parents according to the way they have been kaveid (heavy) in their relations with us.  Has a parent been oppressive, or impressive?

If parents caused childhood trauma, and remain crushing impediments, I think we are entitled to “move away”, as Rambam suggested. We do not need to personally delegate a caregiver, when we pay taxes for social services that will maintain them.

If parents were magnificently kind and encouraging, we should pay them every feasible honor, and continue to learn from them.

And in between? How shall we honor parents who are burdensome, but not bad—heavy, but not heavies?

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2 Comments »

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  1. Melissa, I’m very much enjoying your blog. This topic is one with which I’ve wrestled for years. As an abuse survivor, a part of me wanted very much to “move away.” Yet another part could not ignore that they did indeed give birth to me. Trauma notwithstanding, I survived to adulthood under their supervision. Yet the emotional and verbal abuse continued well into my own adulthood. Finally the answer that worked the best for me came from a local rabbi: my mother belonged to a class of women who have given birth and/or raised children, called mothers. My father, to the class of fathers. I can move away from who they are as people, and the harm they did, while still respecting their class association. It’s a bit of compartmentalization, I’ll agree, but it did the job. And when my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I spend the last three weeks of her life with her, partly as a caretaker, not for her (she also had hospice nurses), but for me–to stay within my own integrity. Perhaps *because* I struggled with what kibud av v’em meant in my own life, I can now look upon how I responded to my parents and their deaths and have no regrets.

    • Dear Sheyna,
      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. It is indeed hard to know when, for how long, and to what extent to “move away” from abusive parents, while still honoring them–without dishonoring yourself.
      I can see how it would help to respect them as members of a class of people, rather than as individuals. That’s a good tip! And I admire your clarity about your reason for being with your mother during the last three weeks of her life.
      My own mother is burdensome but not actually bad. Yet I’ve been wrestling with how much I need to do for her now that she is no longer entirely independent, so that I can honor her as a mother and yet avoid damaging my own life or my marriage. One thing I’ve realized is that when I wish she would take my advice, since I believe am wiser and more knowledgeable about the world, I have to stand back and respect her right to make her own decisions, wise or unwise. Part of honoring her is respecting her as an adult.
      None of this is easy, is it? Yet when I look more deeply into any of the “ten commandments”, I see that they are not as easy as they might seem.
      blessings,
      Melissa


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