The Fifth Commandment (Parashat Yitro)

The author explores the two version of the Ten Commandments, discussing the differences between the two versions of the Fifth Commandment, and the difficulty LGBT people may be faced with by abiding by this commandment. It is very difficult to honor a father who has refused to accept a son or daughter’s chosen life partner.

February 19, 2009

By David Katzenelson

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Parashat Yitro
The Fifth Commandment
by David Katzenelson on Saturday February 14, 2009
19 Shevat 5769
Exodus 18:1 – 20:23

The Ten Commandments are repeated twice in the Torah, in this week’s Parashat Yitro and in Parashat Vaetchanen, with only small differences. The Torah tells us that they were spoken directly by G-d to the people at the event of the most holy revelation at Mt Sinai. They are often considered the highest moral teachings of Judaism. All of this makes for a text that is difficult to discuss, because it may be difficult to express differing opinions. It is even more difficult to criticize the text. Such a text can be very oppressive.

The Fifth Commandment should be a simple one. The two versions of the commandment are very similar:

Exodus 20:12 Honor your father and mother that you may long endure in the Land that the Lord your God is assigning to you.

Deuteronomy 4: 16 Honor your father and mother, as the Lord has commanded you, that you may long endure, and that you may fare well, in the Land that the Lord your God is assigning to you.

The differences have to do with the reasoning behind the commandment, not the content of the commandment itself “Honor your father and mother”. In addition, most of us don’t need a divine revelation to understand the advantage of good family relationships built on respect and honor.

But, seen from a modern point of view, things are not so simple. Human relations, even within the family, are a mutual thing. Where is the commandment to respect one’s children? There isn’t even a clause excusing those who have been abused from honoring the abusing parents.

First we must make things clear. Parents and children, even adult children, cannot be equals in the sense that siblings or friends can be. Parents will always have a certain power over us. Maybe that is the reason this commandment belongs traditionally to the first five commandments defining the relationship between a human and G-d, rather than the last five commandments that define relationships between humans. But still, to give honor you must feel that you receive respect.

From a GLBT point of view, this problem is very relevant. It is very difficult to honor a father who has refused to accept a son or daughter’s chosen life partner. It is difficult to honor a parent who has rejected us due to something so basic to a human as one’s sexuality. And how does one express honor to a parent who refuses any contact with his offspring? If we have shamed our parents by being who we are, have we failed this commandment?

I wish the problem was limited to the GLBT community. But so many people in the world today have suffered in the hands of abusive parents. And it is also difficult to honor the other parent, the loving and caring parent who either never walked away from, or kept coming back to an abusive spouse. Most often, this parent has also failed to protect his or her children from the spouse’s abuse.

Most parents are not abusive and many families are functional in spite of difficult relationships.

It is tempting to say that the commandment is for “normal” people and let the “exceptions” find their own way. But that is simply not good enough. The Ten Commandments apply to all Jews, there are no exceptions in the text.

The English Torah-text does not seem to offer any solution to this problem. As with any translation, we can gain much understanding by looking directly at the original. In this case, I suggest using Hebrew grammar as a tool in our search. In Hebrew the fifth commandment reads Kabed et avicha ve-et imecha. The word Kabed, meaning “honor” or “respect”is from the root kaf bet dalet, conjugated as a verb, in the intensive (binyan pi’el) second person, male, singular, imperative. Any dictionary will tell you that this verb, in this conjugation means “treat with respect, honor”.

But the root kaf bet dalet has other meanings. In Genesis 12:10 Avram travels to Egypt “for the famine was severe in the land” – ki kaved hara’av ba’aretz – now the word from this root means “severe, heavy, a burden”. In Exodus 4:14 Moses describes himself as kvad pe u-kvad lashon – “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue“ and in Exodus 7:14 Pharaoh is described as being kaved lev – having a “heavy heart”.

Both meanings of the root kaf bet dalet are preserved in modern Hebrew. Kavod means “honor, respect”, but kaved means “heavy” and hichbid means “to burden, to be heavy”.

It is possible to read the Fifth Commandment in another way. “Be intensive about giving your father and mother proper weight, do not treat them lightly”.

If your parents have treated you well, do not take this for granted. It is not easy to be a parent. Parents who have managed to raise a child well deserve the highest respect and they should be treated that way by you.

On the other hand, if your parents have rejected, hurt and/or abused you, do not treat this lightly. It is not enough to walk away smiling and pretend that all is well. Parents are of vital importance to a human’s psychological well being, and can cause as much psychological damage as help. Seek the help you need to truly correct this damage. Deal with the rejections, traumas, insecurities or whatever other scars you may have with utmost care and seek healing. This is never a light matter. Without healing, it will be extremely difficult for you to endure and fare well in G-d’s Promised Land. With proper care and healing you may not only manage this, but also truly be able to honor your parents in the future.