Honoring One’s Father and Mother: The Infinitude of a Commandment

Kibbud av va’em appears to be distinctive among the Ten Commandments, which appear for the first time in Parshat Yitro. First, its placement in between the mitzvot bein adam la-makom (commandments concerning man and his Maker) and bein adam la-chaveiro (commandments concerning man and his fellow man) is noteworthy, leading some (Ramban, Abravanel and others) to claim that this mitzvah in fact constitutes a bridge between the two sections of the Commandments, incorporating dimensions of both these categories. Second, this is the one instance in the Aseret ha-Dibrot in which we find the promise of elongated life as a recompense for the mitzvah’s observance.

A classic yet unusual aggadic passage may suggest an explanation. The Talmud (Kiddushin 31a) relates the tale of the gentile Dama Ben Netina, who chose to allow his father to sleep rather than secure a sensational profit on the sale of precious jewels fit for the Temple. The Talmud concludes the story by declaring that if this holds true for a Gentile such as Dama Ben Netina, all the more so it is instructive for a Jew.

This story, however, raises a number of major difficulties. Among them, the Talmud (ibid., 32a) requires a child to pay for kibbud av va’em only from one’s father’s funds, not those of the son. It therefore seems difficult that Dama Ben Netina (or a Jew in an analogous circumstance) would have been required to forego his profit for the purpose of fulfilling kibbud av va’em. Second, the Talmud specifies a number of actions that fall under the rubric of kibbud av va’em, none of which include refusing to wake up one’s father – especially when it would appear likely that Dama’s father would have been happily awakened for his son’s financial gain!

Although the medieval commentators offer numerous resolutions to these questions, one in particular stands out. Shita Lo Noda le-Mi, an anonymous medieval commentary, offers a striking suggestion: The Talmud is not trying to teach the baseline requirement of kibbud av va’em. It rather means to urge us to take every opportunity to perform even voluntary acts of kibbud av va’em, and not settle for a mere baseline fulfillment of the mitzvah. As such, Dama Ben Netina indeed was not obligated to awaken his father, but that is precisely the point: following Dama’s model, we too ought aspire to fulfill kibbud av va’em as best we can, even when the technical obligation no longer applies.

I believe this is the key to resolving our two questions regarding the location and reward of the mitzvah. On the one hand, the basic requirements of this mitzvah are fairly limited. One is obligated to feed, bathe and clothe one’s father and mother, yet these actions hardly exhaust the possibilities for kibbud. The multiple possible dimensions associated with this mitzvah, including both bein adam la-makom and bein adam la-chaveiro, thus account for the mitzvah’s location at the crossroads of the bein adam la-makom and bein adam la-chaveiro sections. They similarly account for the long life associated with kibbud av va’em, which is an outgrowth of its nearly unlimited scope.

The lesson of kibbud av – that mitzvot are not merely an obligation, but rather an opportunity – applies to innumerable commandments, and ought color our approach to Torah observance generally. Shemirat ha-mitzvot is not merely about technical compliance, but also about inculcating broader values and shaping our attitude toward every aspect of life.