Honor your father and your mother, said the sages, is the most difficult commandment, the most difficult mitzvah, of all. How shall I know when I have fulfilled it? It has no fixed form or span of time. It is not marked by any specific ritual act and there is no beracha, no blessing, to recite.
Sages asked Rabbi Eliezer: How far must one take the mitzvah of honoring father and mother?
If you want to know the extent of this commandment, the master said, consider the example set by a heathen who lives in Ashkelon, Dama ben Natina, by name. The story says that God, himself, lavishly rewarded Dama’s great filial respect—and Dama even turned that reward into a further opportunity for honoring of his father. (Click here for Talmud Story)
Rabbi Eliezer’s questioners must have been dumbfounded: Certainly, the honoring of parents is a common human good. But does a non-Jew really provide the greatest example of how to fulfill a mitzvah?
Further, if God so rewards the mitzvah behavior of one who is not bound to the commandments, could this mean that a voluntary act is more worthy than the act of someone who has been commanded?
Rabbi Hanina had given thought to the issue: “One who is commanded and does is greater than one who is not commanded and does.” His unelaborated insistence does not stem the flow of questions that are with us still:
What is the difference between being a virtuous volunteer and being an obedient member of a commanded community? From what “address” do we engage in common human causes that are also commandments for the Jewish community? From the address of the good citizen of humankind, or from a Jewish address?
A thousand years after Rabbi Hanina, Talmud commentators speculated about his meaning: “It seems,” they said, “that the reason one who is commanded and does is preferred is that he worries and troubles himself lest he violate a command.” For the volunteer, if the act becomes tiresome he is at liberty to stop.
It is not the case that Jewish behavior is more valuable than the acts of others. Certainly, Rabbi Eliezer’s “Honor your father” hero was a non-Jew from Ashkelon. But, for one who is a member of the mitzvah community, a common cause undertaken as a mitzvah is undertaken with a sense of memory, identity and responsibility.