Parsha Mitzvot: Kedoshim: Awe of Parents
According to the Talmud, a person who does not show respect for his parents is not forced by the courts to do so, since they “are not required to enforce any mitzva whose reward is explicitly written
down” [Chulin 110b]. But this seems to contradict the words of the Sefer Hachinuch, where it is written with respect to the mitzva of honoring parents, “If the court has the power, the man is forced… since the court can force somebody not to ignore a positive mitzva” [Mitzva 33]. But this is not easy to understand, since the command to show respect for a father and a mother is accompanied by the promise of a reward, “so that your days will be lengthened” [Shemot 20:11].
Some commentators explain that the coercion referred to by the Sefer Hachinuch is not for the positive mitzva of honoring parents but is related to the verse in this week’s Torah portion, “Let every man fear his mother and his father” [Vayikra 19:3]. The performance of this command depends on refraining from positive activity: not to stand or sit in the father’s place and not to contradict his words (Kidushin 31a). However, the above quote of coercion from the Sefer Hachinuch is given in Mitzva 33, respecting parents, and not in the mitzva of fearing a parent (Mitzva 212).
The power given to the courts to force somebody to perform a mitzva is based on two elements. First, the court is responsible for the spiritual status of the nation. In addition, just like there is a punishment of lashes or even death for one who violates a prohibition, so does the refraining from observing a positive mitzva incur a punishment or coercion, which is also left up to the court. But there is a difference between these two aspects. Responsibility for the nation can be accomplished by various means, such as inaction or persuasion and not physical coercion. Note that just as it is worthwhile to give a command which will have a positive influence, so it is not good to give a command which will be ignored. This means that the court must take the effect of its actions into account. If, however, the important aspect is one of punishment, no practical considerations must be considered, and the court must fulfill its role in meting out punishment, without regard for the consequences.
When a reward is listed in the Torah for observance of a mitzva, the court is being told in effect that the sinner will be punished by not receiving the reward. That is, the punishment has already been given, and there is no reason for the court to punish the sinner again. However, if the main reason for forcing the people to do the mitzva is the mutual responsibility of all the Jews, the fact that the sinner received a punishment does not free the court from its obligation. Thus, the Talmud was right in not insisting that a person should be forced to observe the mitzva of showing respect for parents, but “if the court has the power” – as written by the Sefer Hachinuch – and it knows that its actions will have the desired effect, it must accept the responsibility and coerce the son to honor his parents.