Parshas Mishpatim teaches us a great deal of the Mitzvos needed for a functioning society. Included among them are many of the dinei mamanos (laws of money) as well as the Torah principle of an eye for an eye. There are; however, a couple of prohibitions listed which seem either out of order or attached to a particularly harsh punishment. We are told that if a person strikes their parent, they are to be put to death. (21:15) In the next pasuk, we are told that the punishment for kidnapping is also death (21:16) Then, to complete the trifecta, the next pasuk comes back to a person who earns capital punishment for cursing their parent. (21:17) What is special about these seemingly non capital crimes that earn them the harshest of punishments? Why do we interrupt two prohibitions regarding children’s conduct towards their parents with one which involves kidnapping?
Understanding why cursing or striking ones parent earns the death penalty is actually made clear for us elsewhere in the Torah. At the end of Parshas Emor (24:15), we are instructed that someone who is M’kalel Hashem also earns the death penalty. Indeed, many Mepharshim understand the child/parent relationship to be akin to the connection between man and Hashem. In each case, if you could curse the persons or One who gave you life, then mida k’negged mida demands that you forfeit your life if you forget this tenet and act inconsistent with it, even for a moment. Some commentaries use this same rational to explain why Kibud Av V’em (Honoring ones parents) is on the right side of the Aseres Hadibros – the side generally accepted to be the mitzvos Bein Adam L’makom. Respecting one’s parents is a matter between man and G-d.
This still leaves the question as to why we interrupt the two capital prohibitions involving one’s parents with the prohibition and punishment for kidnapping. The Ibn Ezra’s commentary may provide some guidance on this point. He points out that an integral element of the crime of kidnapping is that the kidnapper sold the victim. (21:16) The Ibn Ezra (in the name of R’ Saadia Gaon) opines that it is this element which demands capital punishment – for if someone is sold in their youth, they may grow up and marry a forbidden relative (parent, brother, sister, aunt etc.) out of ignorance to his genealogy. Heinous a crime as kidnapping is, it is this threat to the integrity of the Jewish family which demands capital punishment. With this understanding it becomes clear why the Torah interrupted the two prohibitions regarding ones parents with that of kidnapping – They both threaten the very foundation of Judaism, the family.
Without family, there is no Mesora. Without Mesora there is no Torah. Our ancestors experienced and witnessed the Exodous from Mitzrayim, the splitting of the sea and the giving of the Torah at Sinai. It is that bond with Hashem which has been passed down through a hundred generations. It is that bond with which we explain our survival as a people during this 2,000 year exile. Without family, without Mesora it all falls. All the Mitzvos are important and critical but the preservation of family may be the most important, as the vessel with which we transmit our Mesorah. When we think about how much time we devote to being devout Jews, we must remember to put at least as much effort and time into our families.