Yitro: A Parental Calling, A Child’s Obligation

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10 Commandments
03 Feb 2010

A classic breakdown runs of the Aseret HaDibrot (Ten Commandments) distinguishes between 1-5 and 6-10. The first five are the man-God commandments and last five are the man-man commandments. Before we raise the obvious problem, take a quick glance at the list.

1. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;

2. Do not have any other gods before me.4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me,6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

3. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

4. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work.10 But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.

5. Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

6. You shall not kill.

7. You shall not commit adultery.

8. You shall not steal.

9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

First note the inequitable word distribution between the 1st and 2nd tablet. Mabit posits that the same space allocation for each tablet required the man-man commandments to be written in larger font size than the man- God statements! It is almost as if Hashem is graphically emphasizing that Judaism dare not end in the synagogue. A life of Torah permeates every avenue of our lives, in particular our interpersonal relationships. Thus, when filling out your taxes, do not steal; as you interact with your friends and neighbors, do not covet; guard the boundaries of inter-gender intimacy. Every nook and cranny of our life needs to reflect Hashem’s glory.

In this classic classification, there remains an obvious problem. The fifth commandment: “Honor your father and Mother” is clearly an interpersonal relationship based imperative and yet it remains in the 1st tablet?! Therefore Sefer HaChinuch classifies the 1st four as man-God and the next six as interpersonal. As neat as this is, the two tablet model does not afford us this luxury. Ramban, on the basis of two Rabbinic statements enlighten:

Having finished all that we are obligated towards the Creator himself .. He turns now towards created beings. He begins with the father for in relation to his offspring he is akin to a creator …just as I have commanded you concerning My honor so do I command you concerning the honor of those who have joined me in Your formation.

Parents are people too – but they are also creators who represent the Creator. Indeed, the aforementioned Sefer HaChinuch deftly explains the rationale of this mitzvah as transcending a mere gratitude motif and being a platform to appreciate the Almighty:

For they brought him into the world and exerted great efforts and when the child internalizes this attribute, he will then recognize the greatness of the Creator who is the cause of his existence and his father’s and father’s fathers and who provides for all his needs.

An already awesome responsibility of parenthood takes on another dimension. Beyond this-worldly nurturing and spiritual guidance, the parent serves as the bridge to a relationship with Hashem! Dig deep amongst those who express resentment against Hashem and quite often one will find a dysfunctional child-parent relationship. A loving creator implies a loving Creator. The opposite, God forbid is also true. May Hashem give us the strength to play our role properly.

An incredibly creative and less intuitive Decalogue breakdown is offered by the Mechilta:

“How were the Ten Commandments written? (The first) five were inscribed on one tablet and (the second) five on the other…’ I am the Lord your God’ (was written on one) and adjacent to it was written: ‘Do not murder’. The Torah is teaching that anyone who spills another’s blood, is considered as if he has defiled God. 1

In this scheme, the tablets are read horizontally, forming couplets with its parallel statement on the other tablet. Thus 1 & 6, 2 & 7, 3 & 8, etc. forge a bond. Try to contemplating the connections. You will certainly emerge with fascinating notions that yield much depth. (Indeed Abarbanel, Kli Yakar and Meiri all travel along this route)

Upon simple analysis, 4 out of 5 correlations seem straightforward:

1-6. I am God [who controls life] – therefore do not murder. Even when killing seems logical [euthanasia, that’s what the patient wants, viable organ donation] at the end of the day, God controls life – not man.

2-7.Do not have any other Gods – it is an adulterous behavior. We are married to Hashem [lecha dodi, Shir Hashirim, Hosheia].

3-8. Do no swear using God’s name falsely – you are stealing his reputation. Swearing in God’s name is staking your word on God’s reputation. A false oath misappropriates God’s name.

4-9. Keep the Shabbos – otherwise you are bearing false testimony. Shabbos is testimony to the Creator. To violate Shabbos is to bear false testimony.

Now the difficult one.

5-10. Honor your father and mother, therefore do not covet

Ostensibly, there seems to be no point of nexus here. The meforshim get to work.

Here’s a thought that brings both classifications together. Honoring parents is like honoring our Creator. This plays out on two levels. As parents, we model the Divine relationship. As children, another dimension emerges. In a nutshell, here’s the notion:

Our obligation to honor our parents’ as our creators reminds us that we are not in control.

Children throughout the centuries [except for mine] have pointed out to their parents, that they never had the opportunity to vote for their parents. Indeed, we can choose our friends but not our parents. The obligation to honor our parents reminds us that we did not create or reality – but we must respond appropriately

And why is this key to the tenth commandment?

A famous Ibn Ezra teaches that the way to not covet is to realize that if it could be better, it would be better. Hashem tailor makes our realities – most significantly our parents. Therefore the other’s package is not my peckele. Thus the child of the impoverished family who can honor his parents because they possess the key to his greatness, will not long for the neighbor’s Lexus.

The moment we recognizes that we occupy our own unique space is dawning of the realization that our challenges are growth points and our inner turmoil, the necessary fuel to kindle greatness.


1 “On one was written: ‘You shall have no other gods’ and adjacent to it was written: ‘Do not commit adultery’. The Torah teaches us that anyone who worships idols is considered to have committed adultery against God…” “On one was written: ‘You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain” and adjacent to it was written: ‘Do not steal’. It teaches us that anyone who steals will come to swearing in vain… (to deny the theft)” “On one was written: ‘Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it’, and adjacent to it was written: ‘Do not give false testimony’. This teaches us that anyone who desecrates the Sabbath testifies that God did not create the world in six days and that He did not rest on the seventh. Whilst one who observes the Sabbath testifies that God did create the world in six days and that He did rest on the seventh…” “On one was written: ‘Honor your father and mother’ and adjacent to it: ‘Do not covet’. This teaches us that anyone who covets will eventually beget children who will curse their father and mother and who will honor one who is is not his father…This is the reason why the Ten Commandments were written with five commandments on each tablet.” Mechilta Yitro Chapter 8

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.