There are certain mitzvos that all civilized people can understand and appreciate. One such mitzvah is that of honoring one’s parents. While there are certain particulars to the mitzvah that are distinctly Jewish, the general concept is one accepted by non-Jews as well. Indeed, when the Talmud sought to find an example of one who observed this mitzvah in its proper form, it selected a non-Jew.
Dama ben Nesina was a noble gentile, greatly admired for his wisdom. One time, the elders of his city gathered together for an important meeting, and called Dama to come and advise them.
When he arrived, they immediately seated him at the front of the table and the discussion began. Unknown to Dama, however, his mother – unfortunately a demented woman who was not responsible for her actions – had followed him and burst into the chamber room.
Before the startled eyes of the people, she rushed at her son and began to beat and slap him. With perfect respect, he asked her softly, “Mother, have pity and allow me to take you home.”
This was one reason why Chazal say, “If you wish to understand how far the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents extends, come learn from Dama ben Nesina.”
The Precious Stone
On another occasion, when the Second Bais HaMikdash stood, there arose a need for a precious stone to be placed in the Kohen Gadol’s breastplate. It came to the sages’ attention that Dama owned a beautiful gem.
Hurrying to his home, they offered him 1,000 gold shekel for the stone.
“I will gladly sell you the gem,” replied Dama. “Allow me to get it from the next room.”
When he entered the next room, Dama saw his father fast asleep on the couch with one of his feet resting on top of the chest which held the gem. Dama was faced with the choice of awakening his father or missing an opportunity to sell the gem.
Making sure he did not awaken his father, he returned to the room where the sages sat and said, “I am afraid that I cannot sell you the gem.”
The sages, thinking that he wished to get a higher price, said, “We must have the gem and we are prepared to offer you ten times what we offered you before. Here are 10,000 gold shekel if you will let us have the gem immediately.”
“No, no,” protested Dama. “You do not understand. I cannot give you that gem because my father is sleeping on the chest in which it lies. I would not awaken him if you were to give me an entire household of gold and silver.”
At that moment, the father awoke from his sleep and entered the room.
“Father,” cried Dama, “you are up. Now I can get the gem and sell it to the sages.”
Going into the other room, Dama got the gem and handed it to them.
“We thank you for the gem,” they said. “Here are 10,000 gold shekel.”
“Take back 9,000 of the money,” said Dama. “I originally agreed to sell it for 1,000 shekel. The reason why you added the rest was because I would not awaken my father. Heaven forbid that I should sell the honor and respect of my father for 9,000 shekel.”
The Red Cow
The Almighty did not allow Dama to go unrewarded. The next year, he was blessed with the birth of a perfect red cow, a parah adumah, among his cattle. The sages heard of this and hastened to buy it, for the parah adumah was vital in the days of the Temple, when the laws of tumah and taharah were matters of daily matters practice.
They were so overjoyed to find a parah adumah that they gladly paid Dama 10,000 shekel for it. When the people heard this they said, “The duty of honoring one’s parents is truly great in the eyes of the Almighty. Therefore did He bless Dama ben Nesina.”