In our last post we discussed the extraordinary efforts to which Dama ben Netinah went to honour his father including his willingness to forego a huge monetary windfall.
While there are times when we must spend money on others - the mitzva of tzedaka being the prime example - the mitzva of kibud av v’eim is primarily a service obligation. It is time and effort, not money that we must invest with our parents.
Our Rabbis taught...what is kibud?....one feeds them, gives them drink, dresses them , covers them, brings them in and out.” (Kiddushin 31b) One can greatly honour parents without spending a penny doing so. Our Sages understood that giving money can be a mechanism for doing little else. As any fundraiser can tell you donors will often be all too happy to give a cheque allowing them to avoid a personal meeting and further involvement in the organization.
A child may shower money on their parents but such can be far from honour. “There is one who feeds his father pheasant and removes him from the world and there is one who makes his father grind his own food and brings him to the world to come.” (Kiddushin 31a-b) Times may require that children are unable to help parents as much as they would like but they help the best they can. And at times one gives much but with little love or concern. Often less is more.
Honouring parents requires great, almost heroic efforts and one can never feel they have done enough. Rabbi Tarfon displayed the greatest honour to his mother. He would for example wait by her bed and put his hands under her feet so she not step on the cold floor. When he mentioned to his colleagues his dedication they dismissed his accomplishment by noting “you still have not reached half the honour due.” On the one hand reading such a story is a bit depressing - if such fulfills less than half of our requirement can we ever hope to properly fulfill this mitzva? Yet I believe the rabbis were trying to impress upon us the gratitude due our parents. Parents will do almost anything for their children, often feeling - usually incorrectly - that they are not doing enough for their children. And while the Talmud explains that taking proper care of children overrides the mitzva of honouring parents it is our parents more than our children whom we should spoil.
The second perek of kiddushin opens by teaching the principal of agency - shaliach shel adam kmoto, the agent of a person [has the legal status] of the person. Yet at the same time mitzva bo yoter mibeslucho, it is more meritorious to do the mitzva oneself. This is especially true by honouring parents. The Talmud relates that Avimi had five sons but that when he would hear his father, Rav AvaHucoming to the gate, ababba, he would call out “yes, yes” as he ran to open the door himself for his father.
The Gemara continues that one day Avimi's father asked him for a glass of water and by the time he returned with the water his father had fallen asleep. (This was in the days before running water when the only thing that would run would be the one going to the nearest well.) So Avimi stood there waiting with cup in hand for his father to wake up. Apparently that took some time and the Gemara notes that while he was waiting “he was helped, and Avimi expounded upon Mizmor leAssaf”.
The 79th chapter of Tehillim begins “A song to Assaf: My Lord, the nations of the world came into Your inheritance, made impure Your sanctuary, they have made Jerusalem into heaps.” (Tehillim 79:1) Is this something we should sing a mizmor, a song, about? Should it not begin kinah leAssaf, a lamentation to Assaf? Rashi (s.v. estaya milta) explains that while Avimi was waiting he understood that in fact the destruction of the Temple is something we should be thankful for. Assaf sang because “the Holy One blessed be He took out His anger on the sticks and stones of His house and therefore a remnant of Israel survived for if not so, no remnant of Israel would have survived.” Unbelievable! The Temple lay in ruins and Jerusalem destroyed but we must thank G-d. It could have been worse - the Jewish people could have been wiped out forever.
Leaving aside the tremendous theological implications of Rashi’s comment there is a connection between Assaf’s song and the mitzva of honouring parents, which is after all the subject of our sugya.
A parent must at times punish their child. From the child’s perspective this is often mean and unfair. Yet the parent (hopefully) does so out of necessity in order to properly educate the child. Years later the child will understand how what appeared as a punishment was a much-needed even if painful lesson.
For those who lived through the destruction of the Temple it was a horrific experience. Roman persecution, internal conflict, exile, loss of sovereignty. And for that we mourn on Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the year.
Yet looking back hundreds of years later it was a needed corrective. The Temple had lost all meaning, the leadership was corrupt, the people fighting with each other. Judaism had to be rebuilt. What we call today rabbinic Judaism could flourish only with a fresh start in Yavne under the leadership of Rav Yochanan ben Zackai. Sometimes we must destroy in order to rebuild. And for this, we who did not experience the destruction, can sing to G-d.
As we prepare for the Pesach Seder we realize that it is only because of our years of slavery that we could develop as a nation. We were sent to Egypt because we needed it. Thus we thank G-d despite the fact that it was He who promised we would be “oppressed for four hundred years.” Yet that oppression (and at times worse) helped develop our sensitivity to the “stranger, the widow and the orphan”. This is the message of the exodus we are commanded to recall each and every day.
As the seder so beautifully teaches it is the parents who are the primary teachers and guides for their children. They too may have to seemingly “oppress us”. But it is their harsh love that allows us to become much greater people.
 From an economic perspective what is involved in honouring parents is an opportunity cost - as time spent honouring parents is time potentially taken away from other business pursuits. And if money need be spent it is strictly speaking the obligation of the parent to pay. (Kiddushin 32a)
 Over and over we see how our names convey ideas and even mimic the narrative. Avimi literally means ‘who is my father’ and Avahu means ‘he is the father’. When Avahu the father comes the son says mi, mi I will go help my Av. There is also the play on the word gate Ababa which can be read as my father is coming.