MEANING IN MITZVOT by Rabbi Asher Meir
Each week we discuss one familiar halakhic practice and try to show its beauty and meaning. The columns are based on the commentary “Meaning in Mitzvot” on Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, which is serialized on Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Virtual Beit Midrash, www.vbm-torah.org.
The command to Avram to journey to the land of Israel (Bereshit 12:1) immediately follows the news of Terach’s death at the age of 205. Although Avram’s sojourn actually took place decades before his father’s death, the Author of the Torah arranged the verses in this way so as not to overemphasize the fact that in order to fulfill His command, Avram had to leave Terach and neglect the obligation to honor his father. (Bereshit Rabba.)
The Torah obligation to honor our parents includes two basic aspects: honor and reverence. The mitzva of “honor”, taking care of physical needs, is the fifth commandment (Shemot 20:12); the mitzva of reverence is taught in Kedoshim: “Each person shall revere his mother and his father, and you shall observe my Sabbaths; I am HaShem your G-d.” (Vayikra 10:3.) Reverence is expressed by showing that we are not equals with our parents: we never call them by first name, occupy their special place, argue with them as equals, and so on.
Honoring our parents is a natural expression of the gratitude we feel towards them for bringing us into the world, and for the immense effort they put into raising us (if we are raised by our biological parents). (Sefer HaChinukh.) The idea of gratitude is a compelling explanation for the basic obligations of “honor”. Feeding, dressing, and accompanying - are these not the basic duties that parents fulfill towards their children? It is only natural that the grateful child should perform these same duties for the parents.
However, gratitude does not necessarily imply reverence. And our Sages gave this mitzva an immense importance which seems beyond the scope of ordinary gratitude. They tell us that the honor of parents “is compared to the honor of the Creator” (Kiddushin 30b). The reason, the gemara explains, is that the parents are HaShem’s partners in the formation of the child: “There are three partners in [the formation of] man: the Holy One blessed be He, and his father, and his mother.“
The idea of “partnership” suggests that the parents’ contribution is more than physical or biological. The human spirit, the complete human being, is also formed with the participation of the parents. Chasidic thought describes the parents’ conduct as creating a spiritual “garment” for the soul. And Rav Nachman explains that this parental influence doesn’t end when the child is formed but continues throughout life (Likutei Halakhot, Hilkhot Kibud Av vaEm).
This human partnership with HaShem in the most sublime task of all, the breathing of a soul into flesh and blood, is an awesome responsibility for the parents, and at the same time should elicit in the child awe and reverence towards the father and mother.
Honor of Parents & the Shabbat
The Torah tells us that HaShem breathed a living soul into the first man (Bereshit 2:7). But our Sages tell us that ever since, HaShem’s infusion of the soul into a human being is carried out in partnership with the father and mother, as we just learned.
The Torah tells us that HaShem rested on the first Shabbat. But the fact that we are required, or even able, to imitate His rest on an ongoing basis by our weekly human rest is only because there is a likeness between our creative activity and HaShem’s creation of the world. Our Sages learn that HaShem made the world incomplete so that human beings would have the ability to participate in the process of creation (Tanchuma on Bereshit 2:3).
The verse reminds us that despite the seeming comparability of the two commandments, ultimately keeping Shabbat, or any other mitzva, must take preference over honoring parents, because the parents also are obligated in the mitzvot. HaShem does allow us to participate in the process of human and material creation and as it were likens our own honor to His, but ultimately we must recognize our utter subservience to HaShem. It is unthinkable to truly equate or even compare the honor and reverence due our fellow man to that we owe to HaShem.
Rabbi Meir is in the process of writing a monumental companion to Kitzur Shulchan Aruch which beautifully presents the meanings in our mitzvot and halacha. He is also directing the Jewish Business Response Forum at the Center for Business Ethics and Social Responsibility, Jerusalem College of Technology - Machon Lev. The forum aims to help business people run their firms according to Torah, by obtaining prompt, relevant responses to their questions.