Parents vs. God

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Jacob was not punished for being remiss in honoring his parents while studying at the yeshiva of Shame and Ever for 14 years. Talmud thereby derives, “Greater is Torah study than honoring parents” (Megilla 16b-17a).

Rashi teaches that when Jacob worked for Lavan–and traveled–for 22 years total, and did not honor his parents during this term, he was equally punished with the loss of Joseph for 22 years. This teaches that honoring parents is obligatory.

Our morning prayers list certain mitzvahs where one “enjoys the fruits in this world, but the essential reward is received in the next world”, and honoring parents is listed first. This clearly prioritizes honoring parents. However, Torah study is lastly cited as greater than the entire list…including honoring parents.

We learn that while honoring parents is a great mitzvah, Torah study surpasses it. So when Jacob was involved in Torah study, he was not held accountable for being remiss in honoring his parents. But when working for Lavan and traveling 22 years—although doing so for important purposes of marriage and familythis did not exempt him from the obligation of honoring his parents. He was thereby punished commensurately by losing Joseph for 22 years.

 Honoring parents is a great command because it drives us towards accepting authority, our parents. But our parents are only a model authority for our ultimate acceptance of God's authority. Therefore, Torah study, which is the pursuit of God's authority—our primary goal—overrides honoring parents, which is only a vehicle towards accepting God. 

Therefore, unless you are engaged in Torah study, meaning you are involved in other pursuits, you must decline those other pursuits, and instead, you must honor your parents over those pursuits. For other pursuits remove you from honoring parents, a mitzvah which targets accepting God as your authority.