In its reiteration of the Ten Commandments, our Parsha repeats the commandment to respect one’s parents. The typical understanding of this mitzvah is that we owe something to our parents: for caring for us, teaching us, paying for us -in time & money- etc. This is, in fact, the reason alluded to by the Talmud Yerushalmi (Kiddushin 1:7) as to why one must honor their parents. But, the Meshech Chochmah claims, it goes a step further than simply an indebted gratitude.
As he explains, the context of this commandment is important too. If it were that the honor of parents was linked to the child’s indebtedness, then it would be a peculiar instruction for the generation of the desert, a time when Hashem provided them with everything: water, clothing, food, level terrain, an education, and even good weather! What, then, did parents do for their children? Is it to say that a child need not respect his/her parents? What if the parent -in any generation- simply fails to adequately support a child? Does that also absolve them of the obligation to honor one’s parent? As the Meshech Chochmah explains, the context of this commandment -that of the miraculous desert existence- shows that it applies regardless of indebtedness.
The Talmud Bavli and the Ramban in Parshas Yisro add a level of meaning to respecting one’s parents. To paraphrase: Hashem could have created a world where Man was created asexually, without parents. Like Adam, Man could have sprung from dirt and nothingness. Instead, parents were embedded into existence as a paradigm of someone we should appreciate, particularly so that we can relate back to G-d Himself. As we know, Hashem is oftentimes difficult to relate to, hard to connect to. He gave us parents in order to provide a medium we can understand, so that we can apply that same appreciation to Him. In that way, parents are not simply like any person to which we owe a thank you, they’re models of how to relate to G-d Himself. So if we’re a child- how we relate to our parents should inform how we relate to our ultimate Creator. And if we’re parents? We’ve got a lot to live up to.