How Mitzvah Perfects Us

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

A MAN SHALL FEAR HIS MOTHER AND HIS FATHER — Here Scripture mentions the mother before the father because it is manifest to Him that the child fears the father more than the mother and therefore by mentioning the mother first, Scripture stresses the duty of fearing her. In the case of honoring one's parents, however, Scripture mentions the father before the mother because it is manifest to Him that the child honors the mother more than the father because she endeavors to win him over by kind words. Therefore by mentioning the father first, Scripture emphasizes the duty of honoring him. (Rashi on Lev. 19:3)

Rashi teaches that in both— fear and honor of parents—Torah corrects the natural excess expressed towards one of the parents. Since we typically fear our father more, God tells us to correct that imbalance and places the mother first in this verse above. The opposite is done regarding honor. The question is what the problem is with such a natural imbalance. After all, God created us with these two imbalanced dispositions. 

Rashi teaches that expressing our natural tendencies is not God’s will. This is easily seen by the Torah’s commands not to steal. There, the purpose is more easily seen: society cannot function with rampant robbery. But what loss exists if a man fears his father more than his mother, and honors his mother more than his father, as he is naturally inclined? 

The answer is that mitzvah has the purpose of following intelligence. We are not to simply act the way we feel, “I shall be safe, because I follow what my heart sees as good” (Deut. 29:18). Torah condemns this feeling. Honoring parents is not for the purpose of treating them how we feel. Honoring parents is placed in the 10 Commandments, within the first section of laws between man and God. This is because honoring parents ultimately targets man's acceptance of God's authority. God could have made all people as He made Adam and Eve, without parents. But in His wisdom, He decided that a child raised with authority figures is a greater help to the child, training him to eventually accept God as an authority. Therefore, Rashi explains that we should not allow our emotions to dictate how we treat parents, but that we should correct the imbalance and treat them with them with equal fear and honor. By overriding emotional tendencies to give excess fear or honor to one of our parents, we now express honor and fear based on an understanding that these 2 mitzvahs intend that we should ultimately recognize God. Through an equal quantity of both fear and honor expressed to both parents, we no longer act emotionally, as if “they” are the object of the mitzvah, but we act intelligently, knowing that they are “equally” to assist us in ultimately accepting God's authority.

Mitzvah perfects us by guiding us away from the emotions and enlightening us to greater wisdom. It’s  not the brute activity, but the understanding of mitzvahs we must seek.