Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
Could you please elaborate on the Fifth Commandment in the Bible? ("Honor thy father and mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.")
-- E.J., via email
You pose a good question for the days between Mother's Day and Father's Day. This passage from Exodus 20:12 (and Deuteronomy 5:16) is the Fifth Commandment by the Jewish and some Protestant countings, and the Fourth Commandment by Catholic counting. It also may be the most important and the most misunderstood of all the commandments.
The passage does not command us to love our parents. Love is a response to love, and sadly, some parents are incapable of loving and supporting their children. We can't love those who are unloving, but we can and must honor them. Honor is different from love. The Hebrew word for honor is kabed, and the best translation may be something like, "do your duty toward your parents." Duty is doing what we should do, not just what we want to do or love to do. We live in a culture in which "Do what you love" is nearly a universal cultural trope for the secret to happiness. It sounds wise and good, but nothing could be more unbiblical.
Of course, God doesn't want us to be miserable, but the Bible does not teach us to spend our lives doing what we personally want to do and nothing else. The best summary of the biblical view of happiness came from Mother Teresa, who said, "Happiness is the natural fruit of duty."
Obviously, doing our duty and doing what we love are not mutually exclusive. We can often do our duty in a loving and joyous manner, and this is the greatest fulfillment of this or any commandment. However, we all know that duty almost always involves sacrifice and sometimes produces a heavy rather than buoyant heart.
We all know, for example, that caring for elderly and infirm parents can exact a high price on our exuberance, our assets and our sleep, but we still honor and care for them because we're only here because of them. This fundamental biological and spiritual fact generates our duty to honor our parents.
Angry and wounded children are often understandably but sadly focused on what their parents took rather than what they provided. We don't have to love our parents, and when they ask us to do the wrong thing, we certainly don't have to obey them, but we must honor them in gratitude for the gift of life.
If we can't honor the visible creators of our lives, what chance is there that we'll ever be able to summon up the generosity of spirit to honor the Creator? This is the reason for inclusion of the rarely quoted last part of the commandment: "that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee." Just as we can't exist without life, we can't exist without the earth. Just as we're created by our parents, so the earth was created by God. Doing our duty by honoring our parents is reciprocally reinforcing to our duty to honor the earth as a sacred creation and gift from God.
That's the highest level of understanding of the Fifth Commandment. It's all about the meaning of simple gratitude. And it's about seeing everything we have -- our parents, our life, our earth, our faith -- as gifts we didn't earn but received anyway. That is the meaning of grace.
Soldiers know about duty, and that's what I admire most about them, but not all of us are soldiers. However, all of us are children, and all of us were created in the image of God. That's why honoring our parents is the first and best way to learn how to honor God. That's also why this commandment is the only one we absolutely need.
If your mom and dad are alive, call them and tell them how grateful you are that they gave you your life. If they're with God, they already know your heart.
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