The Easy Commandment
V'etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11 )
Why should we honor our fathers and mothers? The Torah gives us one reason in Parashas Shemos (20:12), “So that you may live long.” In Parashas Vaes’chanan, however, the Torah gives an additional reason, “As God your Lord has commanded you.” What is the significance of this additional phrase?
The Meshech Chachmah refers to the Talmud Yerushalmi that considers honoring parents an “easy commandment.” Every person understands that debts have to be repaid. If someone lends you $100,000 when you need it, you would be only too happy to repay the money once you have enough of your own. It would not be a hard thing to do.
By the same token, every person also understands that he has a moral obligation to repay his debt of gratitude to his parents. After all, the cost of raising a child must be at least between $100,000 and $200,000. Not to mention the time, effort and energy parents invest in their children. Therefore, the least people can do is honor their parents. It is not a hard thing to make such a small payment on such a large debt.
The Torah tells us here that this is not the proper motivation for honoring parents. It is not a self-evident obligation to make at least a small payment on a debt owed the parents. It is an obligation incumbent on us solely because “God your Lord has commanded you” to do so.
The Torah waited until Parashas Vaes’chanan to make this point, because it becomes most clear after forty years in the desert. During those years, raising children was easier than it ever was, before or since. They did not have to be fed. There was manna from heaven. They did not need to be given to drink. There was water from Miriam’s Well. They did not need new shoes and clothing all the time. Nothing ever wore out. Most likely they didn’t need orthodontic braces either, because life in the desert was paradise. And still, the Torah demanded that parents be honored. Clearly, the obligation was to obey Hashem’s commandment rather than repay a debt of gratitude. By the time the Jewish people had lived through the era of the desert, they could relate to the mitzvah of honoring parents as an independent obligation.
How far does this go? How much do you have to do for your parents? The Talmud responds (Kiddushin 31a) to this question with the famous story about a gentile from Ashkelon by the name of Dama bar Nesinah.
The Sages once needed a stone for the Urim v’Tumim, and they heard that Dama had exactly the stone they needed. A delegation came to see him and offer to pay him a princely sum for the stone. The stone was in a strongbox, with the key under his father’s pillow. Dama did not disturb him.
“I cannot help you,” he told the Sages. “My father is sleeping, and I wouldn’t disturb his sleep.”
The Sages left.
A year later, a perfect red heifer, suitable for a parah adumah, was born in Dama’s herd. The Sages came to purchase it.
“How much do you want for it?”
“I know that you would give me any price I ask,” he replied. “But I only want the amount of money I lost by not waking my father last year.”
This story establishes the parameters of the mitzvah of honoring parents.
At first glance, the Talmud seems to be deriving halachos, laws, from the conduct of a gentile. But this cannot be. Rather, the Talmud uses this story to establish the parameters of human nature.
As parents get older, they can become querulous and demanding. They can test the patience of their children. Sometimes, honoring parents under such circumstances can take a lot of patience and forbearance. Is there a limit to such patience? How much patience can be expected of a person? Is there a point where a person is allowed to run out of patience and be exempt from this mitzvah?
This is what the story about Dama bar Nesinah teaches us. The Sages were offering him a huge sum of money for the single stone they needed for the Urim v’Tumim. He knew that if he could only get the key, the money would be his. What thoughts must have gone through his mind. Maybe I’ll make a little noise and he’ll wake up. Maybe I’ll slide my hand under the pillow very slowly so that I’ll be able to get the key without waking him up. He must have been very tempted. But he didn’t give in. He was able to honor his father even under such circumstances. This was the extent of what human nature is capable.
It follows, therefore, that if a gentile could have the forbearance to forgo such a huge sum of money and allow his father to sleep, certainly a Jewish person, descended from Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, can find it in himself to honor his parents under any and all circumstances.