The Hidden Relationship of Kibbud Av Vaeim

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz

Shemot 21:17 and 21:19 discuss special obligations toward parents.  An adult child who hits or curses his parents is liable for the death penalty. Sandwiched between these two pesukim is a statement that one who kidnaps and sells any other human being is liable for the death  penalty.

This is a bizarre juxtaposition. Why is kidnapping placed in a section focused on honoring one’s parents?

Talmud Kidushin 31 presents several archetypes of kibbud av vaeim (=honoring parents). Dama ben Netinah famously refuses to wake his father despite the severe financial consequences for showing such a high level of deference to his father’s needs (Kiddushin 31a).  Rabbi Tarfon would kneel by his mother’s bedside, allowing himself to be stepped on to ease her climbing in and out of bed – and the Talmud concludes that his dedication was insufficient, and the mark of aqequate kibbud av vaeim is standing by quietly as one’s mother throws one’s money into the sea.   The message seems to be that the way we directly treat our parents is the most important aspect of our fulfillment of kibbud av vaeim.

The great  Spanish sage Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508) uses the juxtaposition between kidnapping and honoring parents to modify this message.  He explains that the prohibition against kidnapping and selling another is inserted as a subtle reference to Yosef and his brothers, whose sibling rivalry tore their family apart and caused unspeakable pain to their father.  

Abarbanel’s method of interpretation here is fascinating and creative. He reads a halakhic verse as an allusion to a story, and and then learns a Halachic principle from the story.

Sibling relationships are often a volatile mixture of love, respect, jealousy and resentment. One might think that these relationships are voluntary commitments. One can embrace them as long as they remain positive and beneficial, but one has the right to discard them if the relationship goes south.

Abarbanel understands the reference to Yosef as the Torah’s way of teaching us that these complicated relationships are not optional. They are part and parcel of the mitzvah of kibbud av vaeim. As much as it means for parents to have children who show them love and respect, it is often just as important for them to see their children treat each other the same way. Often parents get no greater pleasure than seeing their children have a close bond, be it in childhood or adulthood.

After Yaakov’s passing, Yosef’s brothers become nervous. The Torah states (Genesis 50:15)

וַיִּרְאוּ אֲחֵי יוֹסֵף כִּי מֵת אֲבִיהֶם וַיֹּאמְרוּ לוּ יִשְׂטְמֵנוּ יוֹסֵף וְהָשֵׁב יָשִׁיב לָנוּ אֵת כָּל הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר גָּמַלְנוּ אֹתוֹ

And Joseph’s brothers saw that their father had died, and they said,  “Perhaps Joseph will hate us and return to us all the evil that we did to him.”

The brothers assume that the only reason Yosef never enacted revenge against them was out of a commitment to kibbud av.  Yosef kept up the appearance of a positive relationship with his brothers for his father’s sake. After Yaakov dies, the brothers concoct the story that Yaakov gave them a message to tell Yosef not to harm his brothers. They understood how central the brothers’ relationship was to kibbud av, and assumed that keeping it in that context was the best way to restrain Yosef.  Abarbanel’s reading suggests that they may have been correct.

Our relationship with our siblings can be the greatest manifestation of kibbud av vaeim. But taken to its logical end, Abravanel challenges us to ask ourselves how all the relationships in our life impact our parents and our obligation to honor them.

 

Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz (SBM 2000) is a member of the faculty of Yeshiva University High School for Girls.

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