The Daat Zekenim makes a very interesting observation about the severity of cursing one’s parents (Shemot 21:17) when contrasted to hitting them (21:12). Though both receive the death penalty, the rabbis determine that the more severe punishment of stoning is given for cursing while the relatively less severe penalty of strangulation is given for hitting. Noting that this is non-intuitive, the Daat Zekenim explains that the honor of parents is compared to the honor of God; and that the comparison can extend more readily to cursing than hitting, given that no one can actually ‘hit’ God.

This seemingly modest observation may actually take us a long way towards understanding the nature of our relationship with our parents. In the beginning of Parashat Kedoshim (Vayikra 19:3), R. Avraham Ibn Ezra explains the order of mitzvot presented there (i.e. fearing mother, fearing father, observing Shabbat) as a chronological one in the life of a child. One’s first sense of concern for another is toward one’s first caretaker and only thereafter toward the father. The human creators of the child then inculcate a sense of the ultimate Caretaker. They do this through the mitzvah of remembering our prime Creator and teaching observance of Shabbat. Thus, we see a natural progression outwards: by first putting parents before self we are able to reach a mindframe that allows one to put the more abstract God before self.

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In this way, Ibn Ezra teaches us that parents are ultimately a training ground for our greatest commitment, that towards God. The more we can learn from the former about the latter, the more important it becomes. And this is perhaps what was meant by the Daat Zekenim: We are not worried about people hitting God. As a result hitting parents loses some of its ultimate significance. It is still very important, as the relationship of parent to child parallels that of God to all of us, but the actual act in question is less relevant to that which the parental relationship is most fundamentally supposed to help us learn.

Obviously, the comparison stops short in painfully obvious ways. Parents are certainly not perfect and some are as far from perfect as one can get. However, one thing that we can’t get away from is that we owe them our existence and it is indeed on that very point that the Talmud (Kiddushin 30) notes their similarity to God. It is not about who they are as people, but it is that through them we first recognize our complete dependence on the kindness of certain essential actors in our lives. And when it comes to our relationship with God, this recognition is critical. As opposed to our parents, He is perfect and omnipotent, which makes it easier to treat Him properly than it is to treat our parents. But at the end of the day, it is not God’s wonderful attributes that bring about our sense of obligation. It is our total debt to Him.

The next time we think of our parents, it is worth remembering that it is not only that they (hopefully) cared for us and raised us so dutifully. It is more than that. Just by creating us, they allowed us to better understand what we owe to God. And it is based on that that the laws of honoring parents are structured.

{The writing of this essay was assisted by Harry Glazer of Highland Park, NJ.}

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Rabbi Francis Nataf (www.francisnataf.com) is a Jerusalem-based educator and thinker and the author of four books of contemporary Torah commentary. His parshah column appears weekly in The Jewish Press. Rabbi Nataf is also the author of, "Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Leviticus"