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Isha Bekia

Achrei Mot-Kedoshim – What lies behind the mitzvah of honouring our parents?

May 1, 2020 | Weekly Parsha


Shabbos represents G-d’s existence in the world and His creation of the world. It is the foundation for so much of Judaism, including honouring parents and performing brit milah, because it represents the fundamentals of our faith and the roots of Jewish practice. Both the juxtaposition of the commandment to revere our parents with Shabbos and the requirement that a child lives through Shabbos before having a brit milah serve as a reminder that these commandments – and all other commandments – are predicated on the belief in, and a relationship with, the Almighty.

One of the central pillars of the Torah is: “Honour your father and your mother.” It’s one of the Ten Commandments, and appears at the beginning of the parsha of Kedoshim in a slightly different form: “A person should revere his mother and father.”

The Talmud points out that in the Ten Commandments (read in parshat Yitro and revisited in Va’etchanan), “father” is put before “mother”, whereas in this verse, the order is reversed. A central theme that emerges is one of balance; the Torah is indicating that one must show equal honour and respect to both parents.

The Talmud also examines the difference between “honouring” one’s parents (the Ten Commandments), and “revering” them (Kedoshim). What exactly is the distinction here? What do each require of us?

Broadly speaking, to honour one’s parents – to show them kavod – is to take care of their physical needs; ensuring that they have food, clothing and shelter, and anything else they might physically need. To revere one’s parents, on the other hand – to show them yirah – is to pay them due respect; not addressing them by their first names, not sitting in their seat, not contradicting them in public, etc.

The limits of parental authority

These are just the broad strokes, and there are many practical applications to consider. But a more general question to explore is: What are the limits of parental authority? What if a parent tells you to do something that is immoral? On the one hand, you have a Torah commandment to honour and obey your parents; on the other, here they are telling you to do something that is wrong – something that goes against the Torah. How does that weigh up?

What happens if a parent tells you to speak lashon hara, for example? Perhaps you were at a party where you were privy to some juicy gossip, and your parents are now pressing you for all the salacious details. What do you do?

That dilemma is dealt with in the parsha of Kedoshim. The verse says: “A person should revere his mother and father,” and continues “…and you should observe my Sabbaths.” The Talmud learns that this juxtaposition teaches us there are indeed limits to the authority of a parent. If a parent tells you to transgress the laws of Shabbos, for example, then the laws of Shabbos take priority. And so it is with any other commandment.

Why is it that the laws of Shabbos take priority over honouring one’s parents? Of course, if it’s just an arbitrary instruction then they are just trying to order you around, and it would be understandable. But what if they tell you to break Shabbos because they actually need something. Here, the only way you can provide them with what they need is by transgressing the laws of Shabbos. Yet the Torah forbids it.

The Talmud explains that the obligation to honour and revere one’s parents comes from G-d Himself. This means that authority exercised by one human being over another is inherently limited. No one is automatically entitled to authority over another. What gives a parent the right to give instructions to a child? What obligates a child to honour and revere a parent? G-d alone. Parental authority is G-d-given, and is therefore limited by the various duties and responsibilities parents have to Hashem, Himself. Children have an obligation to honour and revere their parents, but everyone – parent and child alike – has an overarching obligation to honour and revere G-d.

The limits of political authority

And it’s the same with government. Where does the authority of a government originate? From the constitution, and from the people that voted it into power, and, above all – from a Torah point of view – from a G-d-given moral framework. Once the government steps outside those limits – once it flouts the constitution, or betrays the will of the people, or disregards that moral framework – it loses its authority. Its power and authority is necessarily limited. No legitimate government can pass a law allowing one to steal, or to kill; it cannot pass laws that go against the constitution – whether its own constitution, or the ultimate constitution – G-d’s laws.

From the perspective of Judaism, the precepts that constrain the authority and the exercise of political power are those contained in our Torah, in both its written and oral forms. In Jewish law, the head of state exercises authority over the country but within the bounds of Torah. One of the laws set out in Deuteronomy is that a king has to carry with him a Torah at all times. That’s his constitution. That’s what gives him his authority. And if he steps outside the bounds of his authority, he loses it altogether.

In the parsha of Kedoshim, then, from the nature and limits of parental authority, we learn the nature and limits of authority in general – that it is G-d-given and subject to G-d’s laws, and therefore rooted in justice and morality.

A new world

There is something else we can learn from the peculiar juxtaposition of the commandment to revere one’s parents with the commandment to observe Shabbos. Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, one of the great rabbinic authorities of the 20th century, explains the verse as follows: that it is because of Shabbos that we have to honour our parents.

This requires explanation.

Shabbos day is a testimony to the fact that G-d created the world. As we say in Friday night Kiddush, Shabbos is “a remembrance of the acts of creation”. We stand during Kiddush as witnesses testifying to the fact that G-d created the world.

We never look at the world as “just there”. The fact that G-d created the world means the world is, in a sense, new; it’s a creation that occurred at a particular point in time. But it’s also a creation that is ongoing. As we say every day in the morning service, G-d “renews the works of creation in His goodness, at every moment of the day, always”.

This idea that the world we live in is being recreated moment by moment is important. The alternative is that nothing is new, that everything is simply a continuation of the old; a slow, gradual, incidental evolution of the universe and everything in it.

Closer to Sinai

Rav Kamenetsky points to the fact that, from the perspective of the philosophy of evolution, the universe is on an upward curve. Things are progressing all the time. Under this paradigm, human beings evolved from apes, which developed from less-evolved creatures, going all the way back to a single-cell organism. This approach to the world lends itself to the outlook that new is always better than old, and that humankind today is in a better position than it was in generations past.

Judaism’s perspective is different. It is that our ancestors are, certainly spiritually, greater the further back we go – by virtue of their closer proximity to the revelation of G-d’s Torah at Mount Sinai; and that the further forward we go in history, the further we drift from the roots of truth that were planted in the world at that defining moment in our history.

This idea – that previous generations are greater, being closer to the source of all wisdom – is how Rav Kamenetsky connects honouring parents to Shabbos. Shabbos reminds us that G-d created the world – and that He is constantly re-creating it anew. It reminds us that G-d took us out of Egypt, and that He gave us the Torah. It reminds us of the very foundations of Judaism. And part of the reason why we should honour and revere our parents is because, being one generation back, they are closer to those foundations than we are.

You find this concept in the Talmud. The Talmudic sages of the Mishna (the Tannaim – 10-220 CE) are regarded as being on a significantly higher level than the later sages of the Gemara (the Amoraim – 200-500 CE), and one of the key Talmudic precepts is that an Amora can never argue with a Tanna. If the Amoraim, who themselves were of unimaginable spiritual greatness, paled in comparison to the Tannaim, then how do we compare?

The idea that we respect and venerate the old and the ancient lies at the heart of Judaism. Rav Elchonon Wasserman – another one of our great sages, murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust – famously said that had Darwin met the Chofetz Chaim, he would never have proposed his theory of evolution. Had he experienced the refinement and saintliness of this Torah sage, he could never have posited that mankind was an extension of the apes. Darwin simply didn’t realise the heights that a human being could reach.

Pure evolutionary theory takes a very dim view of a human being: we are just a developed amoeba, or an advanced ape, with no inherent greatness. Judaism, however, teaches that every human being has inherent greatness; that we were created by G-d and given a soul, a spark of the Divine. This is why honouring parents fits naturally within the worldview of Judaism, whereas, from the perspective of evolution, previous generations are viewed as more primitive, and therefore, if anything, less deserving of honour and reverence.

Shabbos as the foundation of faith

The understanding that Shabbos is a reminder of the foundations of our faith helps us understand another idea. Why is brit milah (circumcision) performed on the eighth day? Medically, some authorities believe that, by the eighth day, the blood of an infant is able to clot properly. But there is obviously a deeper reason.

The Midrash comments on the Torah’s stipulation that a sacrifice not be brought before the newborn animal is eight days old:

“Rabbi Levi says that it is analogous to a king who decrees that anyone who wishes to see the face of the king must first see the face of the queen. Similarly, says Hashem: do not bring a sacrifice before me until at least one Sabbath has passed, for there are no seven days without a Sabbath and there is no milah without a Sabbath.”

Rav Moshe Feinstein, another one of our great sages from the 20th century, explains that Shabbos establishes the foundations of our belief in G-d, and the foundations of our faith that He created the world. Before one can perform the mitzvah of circumcision – before a child’s life as a Jew can really begin – one needs to realise that the whole of Torah and all of Judaism is based on the fact that we are serving G-d. The circumcision is not just a cultural practice; it is an act of serving G-d and Shabbos reminds us of this.

Shabbos represents G-d’s existence in the world and His creation of the world. Shabbos is the foundation for so much of Judaism, including honouring parents and performing a brit, because it represents the fundamentals of our faith and the roots of Jewish practice.

Constant G-d-consciousness

Belief in G-d is the first of the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your G-d.” Though it could be interpreted as simply a statement of fact, the Rambam codifies this as one of the 613 mitzvot.

The Sefer HaChinuch, one of the classic Jewish works, explains that belief in G-d is a commandment that needs to be fulfilled all the time. On this, Rabbi Mordechai Gifter, the Telshe Rosh Yeshiva and one of the great rabbinic authorities of the 20th century, asks how, practically, one can keep this commandment at all times. Would it not get in the way of all the other commandments?

He answers that all the commandments we perform need to be suffused with G-d-consciousness – whether it’s studying a page of Talmud, visiting the sick, giving charity, comforting a mourner, bringing happiness to a bride and groom. Even though we might not be thinking about G-d at that moment because we are focused on what we are doing, if we do it because G-d commanded us to, it becomes a living testimony to our faith and belief.

Rav Gifter, quoting from the Code of Jewish Law, takes this idea further, saying that even activities which are seemingly not related to any mitzvah – such as eating and drinking, or even sleeping – should be done “for the sake of Heaven”. If we eat to gain energy to lead a meaningful, productive, positive life, if we sleep for that same purpose as well, if we dedicate all of the physical pleasures in life to a higher purpose and utilise them in the service of G-d, then we are constantly fulfilling the mitzvah of belief in G-d.

Judaism is very practical. There are hundreds of commandments, each with myriad details. At times we get caught up in those details and lose sight of the big picture: that Judaism is founded on faith in G-d and on a relationship with Him.