The Fifth Commandment
“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.” —Exodus 20:12
In Judaism, one of the 613 mitzvot —commands — given to the children of Israel is to show respect for the elderly because of their wisdom, and to uphold their dignity. Paul echoed this command in his letter to his younger protégé, Timothy (1 Timothy 5:1). Explore this commandment in its various applications through the timeless teachings of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein.
Recently, an article ran in a Chinese newspaper about a 26-year-old who pushed his wheelchair-bound mother for 93 days to a popular tropical tourist destination. The paper called it “the best example of filial piety in years.”
Filial piety is a Chinese virtue that stresses respect for one’s parents and ancestors. However, many Chinese today are unhappy with how children overall treat their aging parents, seeing this lack of respect as a threat to the moral foundation of their society. So they have mandated filial piety into a new law called “Protection of the Rights and Interests of Elderly People.”
Among other things, it requires children to visit parents regularly and see that their needs are met. Officials in some Chinese counties are taking the law even further and refusing to promote anyone who doesn’t exhibit sufficient respect for their parents. Such is the value that the Chinese place on honoring one’s parents because how one treats a parent reveals the very core of a person’s character.
Today’s verse comes from the account in Exodus where we encounter the giving of the Ten Commandments. The two tablets, each containing five commandments, divide the laws into two different categories. The first five commandments relate to a person’s relationship with God, while the second five commandments deal with a person’s relationship with other people.
The two types of commandments divide quite neatly – with one exception. The fifth commandment directs us to “Honor your father and your mother.” Shouldn’t that be included with the other commandments dealing with our relationship with people? Why is it included with the commandments dealing with our relationship to God?
The Jewish sages explain that there are three partners involved in the creation of a baby — the mother, the father, and God. It takes all three to bring new life into the world. How a person treats two of the partners — his parents — is a good indicator of how she will treat the third, God.
Whether or not a person’s parents are good and kind is not the point. The fact is our parents gave us the gift of life. In all likelihood, at some point in our lives, we were completely dependent on them and they took care of us. At one time, if not always, they were wiser than us. Honoring one’s parents is not about liking them or not; it’s about being grateful and respectful. If we treat our parents with gratitude and respect, we are on track for treating God in the same way.
This week, let’s give appropriate honor to the older people in our lives. As we practice gratitude and respect with the people in our lives, we will also learn to properly honor God. Then, He will “honor” us by coming into our hearts and our lives.
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