The fifth commandment: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you,” is the first one among the ten which addresses inter- personal relationship. It is not just any relationship but that between children and their parents.
This commandment has two versions: the first one: Exodus 20, which I quoted above, promises, as a reward, long life to the one who obeys it. The second one from Deuteronomy 5, stresses that it is God’s will: “‘Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”
Lately I have been thinking about the significance of the fifth commandment and wondering whether it is an innate feeling to honor our father and mother. In Hebrew the words “honor” and “respect” stem from the same root. So the Biblical text reads “respect thy father and thy mother.” I feel that the commandment in English has a slightly different meaning as the word “honor” brings in additional connotations.
So for the purpose of this post I use the word “respect;” the meaning of the verb “to respect” is to feel or show deferential regard for; esteem.
The fifth commandment doesn’t require that we feel high or special regard toward our parents but rather that we act respectfully.
It seems that at one point during adolescence parents stop being their children’s heroes; many of them never manage to attain that high position ever again. As parents ourselves we yearn for times when we were our children’s heroes. Rationally we understand that in order to become their own persons children need to view their parents critically (as Freud showed so brilliantly in “The Killing of the Father”). Still it is not easy to lose that automatic admiration.
So from that point on for most of our adult life, and especially as we age, we have to live with our children’s censure. It is not that they no longer respect us, but they question our actions, criticize our opinions and are impatient with our limited technological abilities.
I asked several friends how they felt about their own parents and the fifth commandment. Most answered that they showed respect to their parents and they appreciated what they had done for them. But often these adult children had reservations about their parents and were critical of them as human beings: they were too conservative, too stingy, too cold etc. Although it was only an anecdotal survey, it raises interesting questions.
I am afraid that until I was about thirty I too respected my father for what he had done for me, but it took me a long time to get to know and to appreciate who he really was.
Sometimes when I see people my own age with their elderly parents and hear them talk to their parents as though they are mishbehaving kids, I realize how hard it is to obey the fifth commandment. Moreover, being always patient and respectful to one’s parents is impossible. We often find our parents especially wanting when we are unhappy.
The Bible doesn’t ask us who our parents are and whether or not they are worthy of our respect or high esteem, but it orders us to “just do it”.