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Sunday, 17 May 2015

Honour thy stepmother

Daf Yomi Kesubos 103

You don’t really appreciate everything your parents did for you until you have kids of your own.  Remember the first time it dawned on you?  It’s the middle of the night and you’ve gotten up to change the baby’s diaper, your toddler wakes up wanting breakfast and next thing you know you’re cleaning up their mess all over the table and floor.  You reach for the phone and, feeling like you’re allowed just one phone call, you call your parents to thank them for everything they ever did for you! 

But then before you know it, a few years later, they’re teenagers and they’re able to think for themselves and talk back.  You’ve asked them to tidy their bedroom or do the dishes and it’s like pulling teeth.  And you think: Why don’t they appreciate everything I do for them?  Why won’t they pull their weight around the house?  I must say that Baruch Hashem we have wonderful children who are very appreciative and helpful, but certainly I hear this complaint from other people all the time.  Where’s the gratitude for everything you’ve done for them?

As Rebbe lay on his deathbed, he called for his children.  They came to see him and he said, ‘When I die, make sure to honour your mother.’
The Gemara asks: Isn’t that a biblical obligation? The Ten Commandments state, ‘Honour your father and your mother!’ 
The Gemara answers: She was actually their stepmother.
The Gemara asks: But honour of one’s stepmother is also a biblical obligation!  For it was taught: The verse states, ‘Kabed es avicha v’es imecha’ (Honour es your father and es your mother – es often means ‘with’).  Es (with) your father includes your stepmother; es (with) your mother includes your stepfather; the word ‘and’ comes to include your elder brother.
The Gemara concludes: The biblical obligation of honouring a step-parent only applies whilst one’s parent is alive, but not once they are deceased.  Rebbe was teaching his children that although one is no longer obligated to honour a step-parent after the parent’s death, it is still the proper thing to do.

If honouring parents were obvious, the Torah wouldn’t have to tell you to do it.  At the very least, it wouldn’t need to be one of the Ten Commandments!  Clearly it’s not so obvious.  Why not?  Because, as anyone with teenagers will tell you, the give-and-take relationship is not a two-way street.  It’s one thing that you can’t expect your toddler to fold the laundry, but why can’t your teenager mow the lawn?!  After all you’ve done for them!  Answer is: You chose to have them.  Once you made the decision to bring them into the world, of course you need to take care of them – feeding them, clothing them, cleaning up after them.  Why should they owe you anything?!

And that’s why the Torah must state, ‘Honour your father and your mother,’ because it’s not obvious.  Even though your parents chose this duty, nonetheless Heaven demands you honour them for everything they’ve done and give back whenever you can.  With that understanding, it’s no longer as difficult to wrap one’s head around the obligation to honour one’s step-parent.  It might not be natural; you might think ‘I don’t owe them anything.’  But it doesn’t matter.  You honour them because the Torah says so, whether you understand why or not.

So if it’s not obvious, why indeed does the Torah require you to honour your parents?  The Sefer Hachinuch explains that in addition to the gratitude you should have for everything they’ve done for you, the greatest thanks is for the mere fact that they brought you into this world. 
Why? What is special about this world?

When Rebbe took ill, Rabbi Chiya entered his room and found him crying. 
He said to him, “Rebbe, why are you crying?  Have we not learned that death whilst laughing is a good sign but death whilst crying is a bad sign?”
Rebbe replied, “I am crying for Torah and mitzvos, which one can only perform in this world.”

Your parents gave you an unbelievable opportunity – to elevate your soul through the performance of mitzvos in this world.  No matter how bad a parent you might think you have, no matter how difficult your childhood may have been, you must be eternally grateful to your parents, simply for bringing you into this world and literally giving you the opportunity of a lifetime!

Honouring your parents is an easy mitzvah for some but much more challenging for others.  If it’s one of the harder mitzvos for you, remember: that might just be the reason you came down into this world – to elevate that particular part of your soul.  May you merit honouring your parents and step-parents during their lifetimes and even after their passing, not because it makes sense, but because the Almighty says that it’s the right thing to do!