Yitro: Gratitude Follows Honoring

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro

This week’s Torah commentary honors Arthur and Hilda Berney, z’l, parents of Gail Berney, who this Shabbat will dedicate the library of Temple Beth-El in her parent’s memory. Our Torah discussion and Torah reading tomorrow are also sponsored by Gail in honor of her parents. 

Good afternoon!

As noted above, tomorrow morning at TBE we anticipate a great act of honoring one’s parents, and indeed, there could be no better week to honor parents than this one, because the mitzvah of honoring one’s father and mother is given in this week’s Torah portion, as part of the revelation at Sinai. (You remember: earthquake, fire, ten commandments and all that.)

We’re going to dig a little deeper into the sources tomorrow, but for now let’s note that the ancient rabbis didn’t think of honoring one’s parents as an emotional orientation but rather as a set of actions. In general, the Torah can only command actions, not feelings, and so to honor one’s parents is to care for them, including making sure they are fed, housed, clothed, and treated with dignity and respect. You can read more about these obligations here.  Of course, circumstances vary for each family, so these are general principles, not necessarily applicable in every situation.

The mitzvah of honoring one’s parents is much discussed in various Torah commentaries, but one interesting perspective comes from the Sefer HaHinnuch, a medieval textbook of the commandments. The Sefer HaHinnuch says that the reason for having a special commandment to honor parents- that is, to act in ways that are caring and generous and preserving of dignity- is to inculcate within ourselves a sense of gratitude for having brought us into being. Human beings tend to take things for granted, and yet it’s a basic spiritual value to be grateful- first to our parents, who brought us into the world, and ultimately to God, Who is the Source of all being.

Note well, however, that the commandment is not to feel grateful, it’s to do acts which bring well-being and dignity to one’s parents. As the saying goes, it’s much easier to act our way into right thinking than think our way into right acting- or, more colloquially, “fake it till you make it.” Acting in caring ways changes our attitude toward the recipient of the act- emotions often follow what we do. That is, as Rabbi Dessler put it, we think we give because we love, but actually, love follows the giving, because we invest ourselves in that which we give to. This is no less true for any relationship, whether with a family member or a stranger on the street: Judaism suggests that we decide to do, and that decision will bring us into the attributes of generosity, compassion, and love, which are in turn what it means to be fully human.

Shabbat Shalom,


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