Remaining respectful of parents can lead to having a cow!
Chukas opens with the laws of the parah adumah (red heifer). Due to its paradoxical procedure, this mitzvah is considered to be the quintessential chok, a law without an understandable explanation. Because it was so rare, a true parah adumah was worth a fortune, as evidenced by the following story.
Chazal (Kiddushin 31a) describe the legendary kibud av v’eim of Dama ben Nesina, a gentile who sold precious stones. When a new jewel was needed for the Kohen Gadol’s breastplate, the Sages approached him with an exorbitant sum. Dama insisted that the gem was temporarily unavailable, as he could not access it without waking his father, and the Rabbis proceeded to purchase the stone elsewhere. Out of respect for his sleeping father, Dama had passed up the deal of a lifetime. One year later, Hashem rewarded him with something infinitely more valuable than any diamond: a parah adumah. The Sages returned with their wallets and Dama finally received his fortune.
It is a powerful story, but difficult to understand: Was it really “respectful” for Dama to let his father snooze and lose? Surely, any reasonable father would have been willing to forgo a few hours of sleep so his son could earn great riches! One would actually be obligated to wake a parent that he knows would prefer to be roused (Sefer Chasidim, 337). It must be that Dama knew that his father would not have wanted to be woken for all the money in the world (Aruch HaShulchan, YD 240:40), although it is unclear why.
Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l (Dibros Moshe, p. 527) offered a fantastic suggestion based on the continuation of the Gemara, regarding Dama’s extraordinary respect for his unreasonable mother. On one occasion, Dama was meeting with several prominent Roman dignitaries when his mother suddenly barged in, tore his expensive clothes, smacked him on the head, and spit at his feet. Despite enduring devastating humiliation, Dama remained silent and made sure no one insulted her. Tosfos point out that, from her ludicrous behavior, it is clear that Dama’s mother was senile. Dama’s greatness, then, was his devotion to preserve the dignity of a woman who lacked the competence to show any regard for his own.
And the same must have been true of Dama’s father who, Rav Moshe posited, was also mentally deficient. Surely, any reasonable father would have forgone a little sleep so his son could earn a fortune - but this man was beyond all reason. Dama must have known that his father, with his diminished capacity, would have been angry to be woken for any reason. Out of respect for the man who gave none to his son, Dama selflessly turned down the deal of a lifetime. With both parents, Dama exhibited patience and respect in the face of illogical and unreasonable treatment. Perhaps, we can suggest, this is why Hashem specifically rewarded Dama with a parah adumah, the quintessential chok, lacking any sense of logic or reason. It was the perfect representation of the value of unconditional love and dedication.
Kibud av v’eim can often feel demanding, and it is not for nothing that Hashem promises a long life to those who rise to the challenge. By reminding ourselves of its great value, we can increase our commitment to this great mitzvah. The results will be most rewarding.