Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Yitro 3

The Ten Commandments can be divided simply into two groups. The first five deal with the relationship between mankind and G-d - “I am the L-rd your G-d...”, “You shall have no other gods before Me...” etc. The second five commandments, those on the second tablet, are about our responsibilities to our fellow man - “Do not murder”, “Do not steal”, “Do not commit adultery” etc. The only problem with this classification is the fifth commandment; although supposedly in the ‘man and G-d’ category, the commandment to “Honour your mother and father” appears to be purely interpersonal.

Furthermore, why is this one of the “Ten Commandments” anyway? The rest of the ten deal with major concepts vital to the stability of society or to our relationship with G-d. Honouring parents seems both trivial and so obvious that it need not be stated. And why does the Torah explicitly give the reward for this Mitzvah, “In order that you should....”. Surely every child must feel a sense of gratitude and debt to his or her parents, not only for physically bringing them into this world, but also for all the investment of time and love that their parents have made. Is one not “forced” to honour one’s parents even without any explicit command to do so?

The Sefer HaChinuch4 explains the commandment of honouring parents:

It is appropriate for a person to recognise and perform kindness to someone who has done kindness to him, and not be a scoundrel, estrange himself, and deny that goodness. For this is a very bad and disgusting trait in its essence both before G-d and people. A person should make himself aware that his father and mother are the cause of his existence in the world, and therefore it is truly appropriate for him to give to his parents every honour and every help that is possible. Because they brought him into this world and put every effort into him when he was a child. When a person fixes this trait into his character he will then be able to recognise the good that G-d has performed for him, that He is the reason he exists, and the reason for all his parents and grandparents back to Adam and Eve. And that G-d brought him into this world, provided for all his daily needs and keeps him in health and working order. And He gave him a cognitive and understanding soul, without which he would be like an animal without consciousness of self. Therefore a person should organise in his thoughts how appropriate it is for him to be scrupulous in serving G-d.

From this text we see that our assumptions were wrong. While it is true and obvious that we owe our parents honour and respect for all that they have done for us, this is not the reason that G-d commands it of us. The real question is why G-d created the world in such a way that people have parents, and require so much input for so many years. Surely He could have made us spontaneously generate, or at least have independence immediately after birth, like almost every other species. This commandment is telling us that the reason that G-d created human beings as dependent upon their parents, is in order that we can also recognise our dependence upon Him. Therefore the Mitzvah of honouring our parents rightly belongs on the first tablet with our other responsibilities toward G-d. That interpersonal component of honouring parents is so obvious that it does not require a specific commandment.

The Ten Commandments are listed in the Torah twice - in this week’s Torah reading, and in the book of Deuteronomy when Moshe repeats the laws before his death. Even though they are basically the same in both places, there are subtle differences which give a deeper understanding of them. Thus in Devarim (5; 16) the Torah says, “Honour your father and your mother as the L-rd your G-d commanded you...”. The underlined words are added into this version of the decalogue and seem to give added support to the idea above. The honouring of parents mandated here is not the simple repayment for past kindness performed by them, but is a way to get a closer appreciation of our relationship with G-d.

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