“Honor your father and mother, so that your days may be lengthened upon the land that Hashem, your God, gives you.” (Exodus 20:12)
Kibud Av Va’em is the Hebrew phrase that encompasses everything that “honor your father and mother” means. As with many Hebrew phrases quoted from the Torah, it means so much more than its face value. It is also a requirement that applies to all of us – no exceptions.
Because it permeates our entire lives, its meaning and specifications change as we mature. When we are young living in our parents’ home, the meaning is somewhat basic: be obedient. The best way to honor our parents is to listen to what they say, and follow their instructions for what we can and cannot do.
When we reach adolescence, the meaning of Kibud Av Va’em changes a bit. While we should still be obedient to what our parents tell us to do, we also have to learn how to interact with them. A new dynamic is introduced in our relationship – we are beginning to approach adulthood and take on the roles and responsibilities that accompany this transition. However, we must temper this changing time with the fact that our parents are still our parents – we do not become their equals just because we begin to mature.
Adulthood brings with it a whole new set of issues. The age difference between twenty and forty-five seems much less significant than the difference between ten and thirty-five. We tend to feel that when we reach adulthood, the relationship that we have with our mother and father should take on more consideration for us. After all, we have reached adulthood, and we desire to be treated as equals. We have begun to live on our own and provide for ourselves. We may have gotten married and begun to raise children. There is now more than ever, so much that we have in common. This tends to be the time when we lose sight of our responsibilities to our parents. Many of us know that we are to provide for our parents when they can no longer provide for themselves – in very much the same way they provided for us when we could not. Many of us fully intend to take on this responsibility when the time comes. However, at the age of forty or fifty, our parents do not seem to need this type of care from us yet. They are self-sufficient – they seem to be very much in the prime of their lives. What could they possibly need from us? What could we as new adults with our own families possibly have to offer them? Shouldn’t we be more concerned with carving out a place for ourselves and our own family?
We still want to have a relationship with them though, but we want to be treated as adults, as parents, as professionals – as equals! We are no longer the kids that took instruction from them, the adolescents that had to follow their rules. We are making our own rules now, and we want them to recognize, and in some cases, be obedient to them. We are ready to trade in the position of honor for one of mutual respect and friendship.
About seven years ago, I went through a series of situations that nearly destroyed my relationship with my father and mother. Catherine and I were busy raising a very active two year-old and newborn twins. I had a new job with increased responsibility, and I felt it was my time to demonstrate that I was now the father to be honored – in short, it was my turn to be in charge.
It was not that I didn’t love my parents – I did then, and still do today. What brought this change about were my feelings of equality with my mother and father. After all, we were all adults now – I was no longer a child, and did not want to be treated as one. I had left their house and their authority and started my own family. I even had scripture to back up the position I was taking: And the man said, “This is now bone of my bones, And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman, Because she was taken out of Man.” For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh (Genesis 2:23-24).
I had so many responsibilities to my own family that there was little time to think about honoring my “old one.” And even if I had thought about it, what could I have done differently? We still visited my parents, and they visited us. They got to see their grandchildren as often as was feasible, and I felt that we were doing fine relationship-wise. But I did not want to be told how to run my household, or how to raise my children.
Another detail came into the picture that had not existed before. Catherine and I were raised in the Episcopal Church, which practiced infant Baptism by sprinkling. We were not attending that church anymore, and wondered if we should have the twins Baptized. After much prayer on the matter, we decided that the reasons for it were not what we believed, and we decided not to do it. It was not an easy decision to make, as it was the first real break with the established religion that I had known since I was a child.
We decided to tell my parents about our decision, because we did not want them wondering why they had not been invited to the baptism (as they had no reason to suspect that we would not have them baptized).
The news went over a bit less successfully than I had anticipated. I never imagined that my mother and father would take the news so hard. My father even went so far as to insinuate that if anything happened to the twins, they would go to Hell. Both of them were sure I had joined a cult.
We could have gotten through this and maintained our relationship with my parents had the events that followed not taken place. I was sure that we had made the right decision concerning the baptism, but I did not want to be challenged on the matter. I assumed that any correspondence from my parents would seek to challenge my decision, so I chose not to deal with the correspondence. My father called and left messages; I did not call back. My mother wrote letters; I did not write her back. I did what many of us do when we are young and dumb – I chose not to deal with the situation at hand. Perhaps I thought that if I ignored it, that it would go away.
I justified the decision based partly on what I had learned from verses like Matthew 19:28-29: And Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake, shall receive many times as much, and shall inherit eternal life.”
I had departed from what I saw as a dead, lifeless religion, set on finding “truth.” The Bible said that this was OK – I could ignore my family in the name of Yeshua. I was finding my way with my new family, trying to walk in the way that YHWH wanted me to walk. However, what I succeeded in doing was alienating myself from people that loved me, and presenting a terrible witness for devotion to Yeshua. I also succeeded in dishonoring my parents, although I did not realize it at the time. The people who had given so much, were repaid by my growing up and turning my back on them.
I am not saying that I should have had the twins baptized – that was a decision that Catherine and I made only after weeks of prayer and serious thought. What I should not have done was ignore my parents. They were confused, perhaps upset, and maybe even a bit angry. But they could not have forced me to do something that I didn’t think was right, and I should have realized this. I made a stand based on a scripture I did not understand. I thought I was free of any responsibility, just because they did not believe as I did. I ran away, when what I should have done was to stand firm in what I believed, and love and honor them as I always had. I had no reason to run away, because I had not done anything wrong. I had merely begun to grow in my understanding of my relationship with Yeshua.
How many Believers have fallen into this same trap when they begin to discover their Hebrew roots, and explore this Messianic lifestyle? It is so easy to take on a feeling of superiority, knowing that we have discovered the truth, and everyone else is walking in sin and darkness. Some of us may even desire to share it with our families, only to find that what we are saying is met with glazed eyes and unbelieving ears. Sometimes there really is a feeling on their part that we have gone terribly wrong. Most times however, they just want to understand what we are talking about.
What do we do then? Having convinced ourselves that this is the only path and all others lead straight to Hell, we isolate ourselves from those who were skeptical of our new-found “faith”. We search for like-minded individuals with which to fellowship, only to find that they are few indeed. Finally, we find ourselves stuck – we have burned the bridge back to our family, and we cannot seem to find any way off this uninhabited island we have created for ourselves.
About a year later I found out that I was to be transferred to Colorado. I did not want to move halfway across the country without making amends for my actions. I had cut them off, shut them out of our lives. I knew that I had hurt them, and I needed to ask for forgiveness. I visited my parents before we left. The visit was brief, and rather cold. They said they forgave me, but I could tell that they had not forgotten what I had done.
While we were in Colorado, I called my parents on their birthdays, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. I could tell each time that the miles were not the only distance between us. After a year in Colorado, I decided to leave the Army. We moved home to South Carolina, and I got a job in Columbia as a software developer. I had hoped that during my absence, my parents would have softened to what had happened two years earlier. However, I found this not to be the case. I could tell that they had not forgotten what I had done.
At first I thought that they still harbored resentment about the baptism. It was not until about three years ago, when I was at a Torah study in Columbia that I really began to understand the whole picture, and become aware of exactly what I had done. We were discussing the topic of honoring parents. I had always seen the fact that Abraham had left his home to follow YHWH as similar to my own situation. God had called Abraham out of his home and away from his family, just as I believed that He had done with me. We were talking about this when someone said, “But Abraham never severed ties with his parents.” The moment these words were spoken, I felt as if YHWH was speaking directly to me – Abraham never severed ties with his parents! This was true – they worshipped false gods, but he still considered them his parents. In fact, he sent his servant Eliezer to his father’s house to get a bride for Isaac. I realized that I had gone terribly wrong in my relationship with my parents. I also realized that I had no idea what it meant to honor my father and mother!
I immediately called my parents and invited them to my house – they refused my invitation. I invited them a second time and they said they would think about it, but then declined. I made trips to their house with the children, trying to demonstrate to them that I wanted them to be a part of our lives. And while this was going on, I was dealing with the fact that honoring our parents might be a command for life, and that I had somehow gotten very confused over its meaning.
What I discovered through this whole process is that the relationship we have with YHWH should mirror the relationship we have with our parents. I am not saying that we need to elevate our parents to the status of deity – what I am saying is that we learn how to interact with YHWH by interacting with our parents. And if, along the way, we build a lasting, personal relationship with YHWH, then at the very minimum, we owe our parents our lives, for showing us our Salvation.
When we are young, our relationship with our parents is one of dependence – we need them for everything. As we grow older, we transition to a relationship of obedience – we need them to teach us. Finally, when we are grown and no longer seem to need them, our relationship becomes one of gratitude – they have given so much, and in most cases, made tremendous sacrifices, to get us to where we are now. We owe them everything! How can we – how could I – turn away from them as if we don’t need them anymore?
I am not saying that my parents were or are perfect. They made plenty of mistakes in my life and during the past several years, but this was not license to terminate the relationship I had with them – especially if I wanted them to accept my apology for the mistakes I had made.
Honoring your kids is the best thing you can do for a healthy parent-child relationship.
Honoring our parents is our way of showing them that we appreciate the things they have done for us. Many things that our parents have done can never be repaid – even in monetary terms. We can not assign a price to the nights they sat up with us when we were sick or the kindness and understanding they showed us when no one would play with us at school. We did not have to beg for meals, and we always had a place to sleep and a roof over our heads. Our parents provided all of our physical needs, in the same way that YHWH provides all of our spiritual needs. It also serves to remind us that no matter how old we get, we will never be our parents’ equal. We will never be the same age, and we will probably never call them by their first names. Their position is set apart with regard to us – we are not on the same level with them.
When we begin a new family – when we leave and cleave – this is not license to stop honoring our parents. Just because we start a new family does not mean that we should forget all that they did for us to prepare us for this time. The command to honor our father and mother is also the only commandment that has a condition attached to it – …so that your days may be lengthened upon the land that Hashem, your God, gives you. Our children learn how to honor us by watching us honor our parents. If we do not honor our parents in the sight of our children, what are we teaching them? We are teaching them that parents are only useful when they are young; when they grow up, they will have no need for us. Failing to honor our parents does not necessarily mean that we will die at an early age (i.e., not live long in the land YHWH gives us) – it also means that we will be forgotten by our children when they do not honor us, just as we have forgotten our parents by not honoring them.
Honoring our parents does not mean that we have to accept their advice on all matters. It does mean that we should remember that there is probably experience behind the advice, and even if we decline it, we should do so with gratitude and respect.
We are commanded to honor our parents in the same manner that we are to recognize the existence of YHWH as our Creator. How we treat our parents will ultimately reflect what kind of relationship we have with YHWH – are we grateful to Him for our Salvation? Do we call on Him only when we need something, or do we have a daily interaction with Him? Will we eventually put away our relationship with YHWH because we don’t need Him anymore?
One of the hardest things for an adult to do, as I have witnessed, is to recognize that he owes his life to another person or people. But that is exactly the case with our parents. We owe them our lives; in the independence of adulthood, we must remain humble and remember this fact. We must honor them – we must show our gratitude for all that they have done, and remember that one day we will be in the same position with our own children. What will we teach them, and how will they treat us?