The third verse in this week’s portion Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:3) tells us:
(ג) אִישׁ אִמּוֹ וְאָבִיו תִּירָאוּ וְאֶת שַׁבְּתֹתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ אֲנִי יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקֵיכֶם
3) Every man, your mother and father, you shall fear, and my Shabbats, you shall observe, I am Hashem your G-d.
This verse is much less known than its famous cousin found in the Ten Commandments, כבד את אביך ואת אמך – “Honor your father and your mother.” This verse instructs us to fear our parents rather than honor them. How does one observe this commandment?
Quoting the Talmud, Rashi answers.
איזהו מורא? לא ישב במקומו ולא ידבר במקומו ולא יסתור את דבריו. ואיזהו כבוד? מאכיל ומשקה מלביש ומנעיל מכניס ומוציא
How does one exhibit fear? By not sitting in his parents’ seat, not interrupting them, and not contradicting what they say. How does one exhibit honor? By giving them to eat and drink, helping them dress and put on their shoes, and helping them come in and go out.
Another observation: this verse instructing us to fear our parents, first cites the mother; whereas the verse in the Ten Commandments instructing us to honor our parents, the father is written first. Why the change?
Again, Rashi explains:
אמו ואביו תיראו – כאן הקדים אם לאב לפי שגלוי לפניו שהבן ירא את אביו יותר מאמו ובכבוד הקדים אב לאם לפי שגלוי לפניו שהבן מכבד את אמו יותר מאביו מפני שמשדלתו בדברים
The Torah here cited the mother before the father because Hashem knows that a child fears his father more than his mother; and in the verse about honor, the Torah cited the father first because Hashem knows that a son respects his mother more than his father because his mother is more loving and persuasive.
By interchanging them, the Torah teaches us that neither one takes precedence over the other, so they need to be treated equally in both fear and honor.
But what is the connection between fearing one’s parents and keeping the Shabbat? Why are these two seemingly unrelated concepts put together in the same verse?
The Talmud teaches us an important lesson from this. The verse is telling us that in spite of My commandment to fear your parents, you must still keep My Shabbat. Hence, should your parent request of you to violate the Shabbat, you must still keep the Shabbat and not fulfill the request. This rule applies to all of the Torah’s commandments. If a parent instructs a child not to keep a mitzvah, or to transgress a prohibition, the child must ignore his parent’s directive; he must instead fulfill the law of the Torah.
The verse’s final phrase provides the logic: “I am Hashem your G-d.” Both you and your parents are obligated to listen to Me. Therefore, your parents lack the authority to override My commandment to you.
Imagine that you are driving with your father in the front seat next to you. As you approach a stop sign, your father says, “You can go through the stop sign, no one is coming.” You listen to your father’s instructions, and, suddenly, flashing lights appear in your rear-view mirror. No cars were coming, but a police car was hidden behind some bushes at the stop sign. As the policeman approaches the car, you are unconcerned. Your excuse is ironclad.
The policeman says, “You just ran that stop sign.”
You answer, “I know officer, I was under a biblical obligation to do so!”
“Oh really?” says the officer, “How so?”
“My father told me to go through it. Have you heard of the fifth commandment of the Ten Commandments? I was obligated to honor his request – the fifth commandment in the Bible!”
With that, the officer turns to your father and asks, “Is that true?” Your father sheepishly says, “Yes, it is, officer.”
Assuming the officer believes in the bible, will he let you off? What should he say to your father?
“When you come to a stop sign, you also have to stop. This is the government’s law that applies to every citizen, including you. By what authority did you tell your son to go through the stop sign? It’s not your rule to break!”
In the same sense, Hashem gave the Torah’s laws to every Jew, and no one is authorized to instruct another Jew to break any them, not even one’s father – it’s simply not his law to break.
The Talmud cites an interesting application of this principle. What if your father and mother ask you for a drink of water at the same time–whose wishes do you fulfill first (assuming you can’t do them both at the same time)? Your father’s, because both you and your mother are obligated to fulfill his wishes.
This raises a new question. Since the logic of this law is so clear, why did the Torah go to the trouble of teaching it to us by juxtaposing the fear of parents to the keeping of the Shabbat? The Torah never includes extra words. Because we would have figured this out by ourselves, like the police officer, why expend the words to write it explicitly?
Perhaps the answer to this question lies in the Torah’s equating parents’ honor with Hashem’s honor.
The first instance of this we find in the Ten Commandments, which were written on two tablets and break down as follows:
- I am Hashem your G-d
- Do not have any other gods
- Do not swear falsely
- Keep the Shabbat
- Honor your father and mother
- Do not murder
- Do not commit adultery
- Do not steal
- Do not bear false testimony
- Do not covet
A careful review of the two tablets reveals that the first tablet (1-5) lists the commandments that apply between man and Hashem, and the second tablet (6-10) lists the commandments that pertain to man’s relationship with his fellow man. The problem, however, appears to be with # 5, “Honor your father and mother,” which seemingly appears on the wrong side! Are parents not human beings with whom we have a relationship? The answer is that this commandment’s placement on the first tablet teaches us that honoring parents is equal to honoring Hashem.
Two other places where a parent’s honor equates to Hashem’s are: (1) a person who curses his parent is guilty of the death penalty just as one who curses Hashem, and (2) a person who physically strikes his parent yet merely creates a wound, nonetheless receives the death penalty. Of course, one cannot strike Hashem, but if a person wounds any other person, he must only pay damages. The death penalty is ordinarily only for murder. We thus see that parents are in a different category altogether.
What is the significance of this idea, and in what way are parents “equal” to Hashem?
Our Sages teach a very fundamental and profound, yet counterintuitive, principle. It comes from the Zohar, the foremost book of Jewish mysticism, and it goes like this.
זוהר חלק ב דף קסא/ב
קודשא בריך הוא אסתכל באורייתא וברא עלמא
The Holy One blessed be He, looked into the Torah and created the world.
The Torah existed in Hashem’s mind – so-to-speak– before He created the universe. What did that Torah comprise? All the true and correct morals and values for mankind to embrace. When Hashem gave the Torah to the Jewish people at Sinai, He conveyed to them these essential truths in the form of the positive and negative mitzvot. This is the Torah’s essence and its purpose to man. By learning the Torah and seeing its just and moral laws, through performing the positive mitzvot and refraining from doing any of the prohibited actions, a person molds himself into a holy and moral individual. He becomes the embodiment of Hashem’s divinely conceived morals and values and a living model of the “man” Hashem wanted when creating him. The degree to which a person embodies the Torah’s morals and values is the degree to which he is aligned with Hashem, and accurately measures his level of perfection.
For example, Hashem wants us to learn the ethic of respecting another’s property ownership, which is embodied in the eighth commandment: Do not steal. But for man to actually practice that respect, there must be:
A. Items that can be stolen, and
B. A legal system establishing rules of ownership and how that ownership is transferred from one person to another.
So, the creation of the physical world had to comply with the eighth commandment, and all kinds of stealable items were created. Many rules of ownership, i.e., how to acquire or sell items, were also generated at that time. This way, by consistently refraining from taking someone else’s property, one would train himself in the ethic of respect for another’s ownership of his property, the ethic Hashem wanted man to have.
This goes against common thought. We think that because there are a multitude of items that can be stolen, the Torah had to warn us against stealing. This Zohar teaches us that it is actually the other way around. Because the Torah says, Do not steal, there need to be items that can be stolen. So, Hashem created them.
Applying this concept to the commandment to honor one’s parents, because Hashem wants us to learn and master respect for a higher authority, as expressed in the fifth commandment “Honor your father and your mother,” when Hashem created His world, He created a system whereby children come from parents whom they must respect. In other words, instead of “because we have parents, we need to honor them,” the Almighty’s system recognized that since there needs to be a concept of honor for parents, we need to have parents!
The concept of giving honor and respect to the ones who created you is a moral value that Hashem wants people to have. It is proper and necessary to feel a deep debt of gratitude and a tremendous sense of awe and respect for the ones who have given you so much. Gratitude and thankfulness to one who has given you something -הכרת הטוב (“recognizing the good”)- is a quality necessary in a human being.
Hashem created parents to enable us acquire this value. – As mini creators, by having children, parents would teach them from when they were little to show respect and awe for their creators, their parents. The home would be a proving ground for inculcating into children the important value of feeling a deep debt of gratitude and a tremendous sense of awe and respect for their creators. As they grow older and mature, they can take the next step and give even greater respect and awe to Hashem, the One who really created them and gave them everything that they have. Since respecting parents serves as a stepping stone to respecting Hashem, that commandment is on the side of the Tablets between man and his Creator.
The Talmud (Niddah 31a) reveals yet a deeper way in which parents are like Hashem:
תנו רבנן: שלשה שותפין יש באדם, הקדוש ברוך הוא ואביו ואמו אביו מזריע הלובן שממנו עצמות וגידים וצפרנים ומוח שבראשו ולובן שבעין אמו מזרעת אודם שממנו עור ובשר ושערות ושחור שבעין והקדוש ברוך הוא נותן בו רוח ונשמה וקלסתר פנים וראיית העין ושמיעת האוזן ודבור פה והלוך רגלים ובינה והשכל וכיון שהגיע זמנו להפטר מן העולם הקדוש ברוך הוא נוטל חלקו וחלק אביו ואמו מניח לפניהם
The Rabbis taught: There are three partners in every person. Hashem, his father, and his mother. The father and mother contribute the child’s physical components, and Hashem provides the soul. When it comes time for a person to leave the world, Hashem takes back His portion, and leaves the parents with their part of the partnership.
This teaching seems to be metaphoric. The parents provide the child’s physical components, and Hashem provides the spiritual components. However, the commentary Sefas Emes (Parashat Noach 1884) provides a much deeper understanding.
Everything that exists came into being during the six days of creation. This includes all of the souls that would eventually be placed in physical bodies during the 6,000 years of creation. Our Sages teach us that there is a repository in heaven (גוף) where Hashem keeps the souls until He is ready to place one into a body to begin its life on this earth as a person.
A soul is a completely spiritual entity, a piece of Hashem, so to speak, and it cannot exist on the earth without a physical body. The body is like the spacesuit that an astronaut dons allowing him to function on the moon. Without the spacesuit, the astronaut is doomed.
The parents provide Hashem a child in which to place the soul that He has in heaven. Without the receptacle created by the parents, Hashem cannot bring that soul into this world to begin its life. This makes the parents equal partners with Hashem in their child’s creation because Hashem needs their component as much as they need Hashem’s component. This elevates parents and puts them on par with Hashem in the creation of their child and entitles them to a place on the first tablet of the Ten Commandments
There is yet a deeper level of meaning to this.
Our Sages teach us that Hashem created man to bestow love and kindness upon him. What is the greatest good that Hashem could possibly bestow upon a person? Since Hashem is the quintessence of all goodness, the greatest possible good that Hashem could possibly grant a person is a relationship with Hashem Himself, the ultimate goodness. This purely spiritual relationship will be realized only in the world to come, where a person’s soul is in its pure spiritual state. The intensity of the pleasure that the soul will experience from this relationship with Hashem is beyond description. Though we have a spiritual relationship with Hashem in this world as well, our soul, being housed within a physical body, is unable to experience the full benefit of its relationship with Hashem. In the world to come, however, we will experience the full spiritual relationship with Hashem, commensurate with the amount of spirituality that we created within ourselves during our lifetime.
How does one create that relationship with Hashem in this world? Through learning the Torah and performing Hashem’s mitzvot, the spiritual power pills that inject spirituality into a person. Of course, with the soul housed in a physical body, there is always a challenge to doing Hashem’s will. Our physical component always seeks the easy way out, desiring only what is sweet and pleasurable this moment. Just to perform a “simple” mitzvah requires us to overcome that innate tendency and exert the effort to do Hashem’s commandment. Hashem rewards the effort by infusing us with a dose of spirituality from the mitzvah performed. And that reward is commensurate to the amount of effort exerted.
This, moreover, is the entire basis for serving Hashem and keeping His mitzvot. He created us and gave us this life so that we can earn reward by serving Him. Being a servant of the amazing Creator of our universe is the greatest possible good that a person could hope to receive, for which he will be very well rewarded for his service in the world to come.
Hashem wants to bestow His goodness upon as many people as possible. To this end, the Torah’s first commandment is, “Be fruitful and multiply.” This is why Hashem wants parents to have children, so that He can give them great reward in the next world as a result of the Torah and mitzvot that they do during their lifetimes. When parents bring children into the world with the same goal of giving them the opportunity to earn the sublime reward from Hashem in the world to come, they are mirroring Hashem’s altruistic reason for having created us. Raising and providing for children is a tremendous burden and sacrifice, yet parents are prepared to undertake decades of care and support to their children, all just to give them the opportunity to earn their place in the World to Come. In this regard, parents are to children what Hashem is to mankind. This is why respecting one’s parents is on the first tablet of the Ten Commandments.
This explains why no matter how harsh or how hurtful a parent was to a child; the law is that the child must maintain his respect and fear of his parent. He is never allowed to strike back and insult or act disrespectfully to them. Because anything negative that the parent may have done to the child pales in comparison to the great good that the parent did for him by giving the child life and the opportunity to earn a place in the World to Come.
This is why Jewish education is so primary in a Jewish home. It offers the instruction that provides the child with the necessary tools to acquire his place in the world to come. He needs to learn how to learn Torah so he can fulfill the mitzvah of learning Torah. He needs to know how to pray and perform all of the mitzvot so that when he becomes an adult, he will know how to use them to create his unique relationship with Hashem.
This is why the honor and fear of parents is so crucial in a Jewish family. It creates the proper framework for the relationship between parents and their children. And because the parental role is to impart to their children the tools they will need for life, an awe and respect for them and what they are doing must be infused into their children.
Sometimes, unfortunately, parents themselves don’t appreciate the magnitude of their responsibility to their “creations.” They think that their children are here to serve them instead of them being here to serve their children. They become personally upset when their children don’t follow their instructions. Yet, when a parent understands that his child must respect him for the child’s sake, not for the parent’s personal honor, he would not become upset. Rather, he would say, “The Torah requires that you show respect to your parent and you are not following the Torah’s instructions! It’s your problem, not mine.” When a child sees that his parents are in it only for him, to see that he learns the skills needed for life, he won’t resent them. On the contrary, he will have only the utmost respect for them and thank them his entire life for having prepared him for life so well.
Seeing how much the Torah emphasizes honoring and fearing one’s parents, one might think that perhaps listening to a parent’s instruction, even when it is against the Torah, may be an exception.
The flaw in this rationale is that, ultimately, the goal behind the entire system is to learn how to listen to our Great Father in heaven; His request must remain primary. By teaching our children that we must all listen to our Father in heaven no matter who is asking you to violate it, provides the strongest lesson of all.
This is the meaning of “I am Hashem” at the end of the verse. Hashem is saying that even though I have instructed you to give so much honor to your parents, I am still Hashem, the ultimate Father, and, therefore, My honor comes first.