Let me say at the onset that I do not consider myself to be a sufficient role model when it comes to kibbud av v’eim – the 5th commandment; I humbly acknowledge my abysmal failures and inadequate performance of this critical mitzvah. However, I do detect a perilous and alarming trend, whereby performance of this mitzvah is spiraling to its lowest levels, threatening the very essence of the foundation that has sustained us over the past five millennium.
I recently heard a story told from one of the rabbanim here in Chicago. An elementary school age student approached his rebbe with the following question: It is recognized and documented that the shevatim hated their brother Yosef because of the preferential treatment he received from his father, Yaakov. However, there appears to be no indication that they harbored any resentment toward Yaakov himself. Why not, the student wondered. After all, wasn’t it Yaakov’s actions that precipitated their hatred – why didn’t they harbor any of those negative feelings towards him?
The teacher asked for some time to study the issue and told the student he would get back to him. The next day the rebbe informed his young disciple that although he had reviewed many seforim, he could not find a commentator who addressed this inquiry. He suggested that they send a letter to the Gadol, Rav Chaim Kanievsky. They did, and the response they received was both profound and awe-inspiring. Rav Chaim wrote that the reason nary a commentator addresses this topic is because it was unfathomable that a child could possibly feel hatred towards a parent! What an eye-opening revelation – the idea that we could discuss the justification of a child hating a parent was unimaginable in previous generations!
I’m not suggesting being deficient in the mitzvah of kibbud av v’eim is a modern day issue. In my humble opinion it is the hardest of all the 613 mitzvos to perform appropriately and completely. In fact, a vort from the Bnei Yissaschar underscores the impossibility of achieving perfect performance. He explains the reason why Esther HaMalka was chosen by Hashem to liberate the Jews from the persecution of Haman HaRasha. Haman, a descendant of Eisav, had the zechus of Eisav’s kibbud av v’eim in his corner. As we know, Eisav was exceptional in the way he respected his father, Yitzchak. So, whoever would endeavor to redeem Bnei Yisrael from Haman’s evil decree would have to combat this zechus. This is why when the Megillah introduces us to Esther it says ki ayn lah av v’eim – because she did not have a mother or father. As she had never had the opportunity to perform the 5th commandment, Haman’s zechus could not be used against her.
What we can glean from this Bnei Yissachar is twofold: First, how meritorious it is to properly observe the 5th commandment, and second, how exceptionally unattainable it is to satisfactorily perform the mitzvah.
Acknowledging the level of difficulty of keeping the mitzvah in no way exonerates us from honoring our parents to the fullest extent. The lack of respect from child to parent has been on a downward spiral for several generations; this isn’t a 21st century problem. I remember being chastised (often) as a teen by my own father. He said that he would have never dared to speak to his father in the manner in which I addressed him, and if he had, his father would have taken the appropriate measures to ensure that there was not a reoccurrence.
A friend recently shared with me a conversation between him and his teenage daughter, which he alleges is typical of their routine interactions. He was chastising her for the way she spoke to him and for the way she argued with him – as if they were on equal footing. She responded by asking him if he wanted to have the same relationship with her as his parents had with him. This seemingly juvenile statement has significantly more severe implications than one might realize. Kibbud av v’eim has suddenly become about “relationships.” It is no longer an unconditional commandment – one of ten proclaimed by the Almighty Himself on Har Sinai. We now must negotiate and compromise with our children. Parents attempt to “befriend” their children, yet maintain the fantastic notion that this somehow fortifies, rather than demolishes the boundaries that need to exist if there is to be respect. We live in a generation where children feel entitled to tell a parent “I can’t take you anymore,” or to slam down a phone in anger in middle of a conversation. There are even cases where children feel justified in totally disengaging from a parent! Where in the Torah is there any indication that kibbud av v’eim is conditional or optional? We live in a generation where it is perfectly acceptable for one to inquire why the shevatim didn’t despise their father!
Why? Why are there an unprecedented number of situations whereby children feel justified in disengaging from their parents, or having contact on “their” terms and conditions? Why have the boundaries between parent and child become so blurred to the extent they are virtually non-existent?
As with so many other challenges that face our generation, we are a product of our society. We find ourselves in a time and place where the social norms and values have not just been modified, but in many cases have resurrected the world of Sedom. Law and order has been largely usurped by our sensitivity to nonconformists and radical views. Criminals appear to enjoy more legal protection than do victims. As difficult as this all is, we, as Jews, must display the fortitude to avoid the waves of immorality that permeate all facets of society. It is no longer sufficient to assume that as God-fearing people, with strong affiliations to synagogues and yeshivas, that we are sheltered from the evils that lurk outside our religious sanctity. We cannot allow the degradation of society at large to seep into our homes of kedusha.
We must affirm the foundation of our existence as a nation – the Torah and all the mitzvos contained within her. And the 5th commandment, the 5th dibra that the Almighty gave to us at Har Sinai, is equal in importance as the other nine. Just as we acknowledge that emunah in Hashem and keeping Shabbos are foundational beliefs, we must acknowledge the same for kibbud av v’eim. We simply can’t afford to plead the fifth in respect to the 5th commandment!
About the Author: Shmuel Zundell, a second generation contributor to the Jewish Press, was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. He received a Masters in Business Administration from New York University. He currently resides in Chicago with his wife and children.
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