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Why do we need to honor our parents?

You might ask, this what is the question? Who knows what’s good for a child better than their parents? But it’s no so straightforward. The commandment to “Honor your father and your mother” is not directed at a young child, web but to an adult who is obligated to keep the mitzvot. Perhaps there are those who believe (mostly children…) that the commandment to respect your parents ends with the bar-mitzvah celebration, but in truth, it is the opposite.

Let’s imagine, for example, a middle-aged individual who has a family of his own, and might even be more astute than his aged parents?they are worldly and sophisticated, but his parents belong to the old school. Nonetheless, even in such a case, one must always respect parents. We must take care of our parents as they grow older, address them respectfully, never calling them by their first names, etc., etc. This is a particularly relevant situation in our day and age when many ba’alei teshuvah (returneees to God and His Torah) have rebelled against their parents approach to life, yet nonetheless, respect them.

True, honoring one’s parents is an accepted social norm in almost every human society, and the sages even offer one example of a non-Jew who behaved respectfully towards his father (Damah ben Netinah[1]). Nonetheless, since this practice has been permanently sealed as a mitzvah?in the Ten Commandments, no less?we can study the reasons for the mitzvah and delve into its depths.

First, let’s note the location of the mitzvah. The Ten Commandments are clearly divided into two halves, the first five commandments, written on the right hand tablet of the Tablets of the Covenant, and the second five, on the left side. The first five commandments deal mainly with commandments between man and God, such as belief in God, “I am Havayah your God”; the prohibition against idolatry, “You shall have no gods besides Me; Shabbat, “Remember the Shabbat day.” The five second commandments are devoted to commandments between man and his fellowman: “Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not falsely testify against your fellowman. Do not covet…”

Yet, the commandment to honor one’s parents appears at the end of the first five commandments, which implies that it belongs to the commandments between man and God! On the other hand, the fact that it concludes the commandments between man and God alludes to the fact that this commandment serves as a transition between these commandments and the commandments that relate to man and his fellowman.

Gratitude

Let’s now turn to the greatest commentators to reveal a variety of ways to explain the commandment of honoring one’s parents. Here is what Sefer Hachinuch has to say:[2]

The roots of the mitzvah are that one should acknowledge and do acts of kindness for one who does him a favor, and he should not be an ungrateful, neglectful villain, which is an extremely evil and despicable trait before God and mankind. He should pay attention to the fact that his parents are the cause of his existence in the world, therefore it is truly essential for him to do everything in his power to respect them in every way, because they brought him into the world and they exerted themselves in various efforts when he was a child.

Simply put, a good person is one who knows how to be appreciative of the kindnesses that people do for him, and not ungrateful. Since there is no kindness greater than that which parents have granted their children, honoring one’s parents is simply a matter of good human relations. However, the Chinuch continues:

Once he has established this trait in his psyche, he may elevate it to realize the Almighty’s kindness, for He is his cause and the cause of his forefathers back to the first man, Adam. He has brought him into the world and supplied him with his needs his entire life and structured his composition and perfected his limbs, and has given him an intellectual, understanding soul. And if God had not graced him with his soul he would be like a horse, a mule that does not understand. And he should meditate upon how very much he should be careful in His service.

The essence of this teaching is that someone who is grateful towards his parents will know how to be grateful towards his Creator.

Indeed, although gratitude is the basis of all good human relationships, there is something unique in the gratitude expressed by honoring one’s parents. Whereas regular gratitude might be perceived on a fundamental give-and-take level of relationship whereby if I express gratitude for the kindnesses people do for me, then others will relate to me accordingly. This implies that in fact the person only has their own best interests at heart, and would gladly relinquish the tedious obligation to express thanks every time someone does him a favor. By contrast, honoring one’s parents is a far more correct and suitable type of gratitude?it’s good to live with a sense of reliance and dependency and to express our gratitude to those to whom we will always be indebted, even when they no longer have the power to help us. Therefore, this mitzvah is a custom built bridge that connects between human relationships and the relationship between man and God. It is good to feel dependent on God, to thank Him at every moment for the gift of life that He grants us in His loving-kindness, and obviously, to perform His will and His commandments.

Tradition! Tradition!

Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel finds another reason for the commandment of honoring one’s parents:

The foundation of this mitzvah is so that the parents’ conveyance should be important in an individual’s mind and he should believe in it and rely on it. And since the power of this commandment to believe in the conveyance of one’s predecessors?which is an all-inclusive principle in the Torah and no reality can be imagined without it?therefore this commandment is included in the five Divine commandments on the first tablet, and is not one of the humanitarian commandments that are on the second tablet.

In simple words, the Torah is founded on “conveyance” (????????), i.e., “tradition.” Without a living tradition that transmits the Torah from generation to generation, we would not observe the Torah, nor would we believe in it. This tradition is transmitted via our parents and respecting our parents means respecting their heritage. This is how Abarbanel explains why this mitzvah is written on the first five “Divine” commandments, which deal with the relationship between man and God, and not in the second, “humanitarian” commandments, which deal with regular human relationships.

Does this opinion hold that honoring one’s parents is only a commandment between man and God? Taking a more detailed look, we see that it is an “intermediary” between human relationships and man’s relationship with God. This is because the commandment to honor the conveyer of tradition did not appear from nowhere, but developed, as it were, from the correct human relationships which are supposed to exist in every human society. After all, our Jewish parents don’t only transmit folklores, but provide the child with a fundamental value system. Moreover, our parents were the first to bring us into contact with the concept of authority – therefore any good social system must be built on the foundation of a sense of respect towards one’s parents as representatives of heritage, authority and hierarchy. One might say that this is the meaning of, “Good manners preceded the Torah”[3]; initially, respecting one’s parents was “good manners,” but now, since the revelation of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, parents are the bearers of our special Jewish heritage, the heritage of the Torah, “Moses commanded us the Torah, a heritage for the congregation of Jacob.”[4] Therefore, our respect for them should be more sophisticated.

Our First Father and our Last Father

In his commentary on the Torah, Nachmanides reveals an even deeper level to this mitzvah:

This [mitzvah] completes everything that we are obliged in the words of the Creator in and of His own honor, and it now continues to command us regarding the creations and it begins with the father, who for his offspring is like the Creator who participates in his formation; for God is our first Father and our parent is our last father… as I have commanded you in My honor, so I command you to honor the one who is a partner with Me in your formation.

Nachmanides’ interpretation implies that the parents themselves serve as an intermediary between the Creator and His creations. “There are three partners in the creation of a child—the Almighty, father, and mother.”[5] The parents supply the physical body while God supplies the soul. Yet, despite this division of realms, the body hosts the soul, and the Almighty does the incredible feat of connecting the two.[6] This is why even the parents’ role in the partnership also represents the Divine part. If one contemplates only oneself, then life appears to be obvious. It’s quite clear to me that I exist. But if we broaden our scope to include our parents, who brought us into the world, we can sense the incredible wonder of our life as something that was created from the Divine nothingness. In addition, we also realize that our beloved parents are our “last father” in the chain that is headed by our “first Father,” the Creator Himself.

Three Connections in Honoring One’s Parents

We have seen three different explanations of the mitzvah to honor one’s parents. If we were examining this in a detached, rational way, we might suffice with that. Indeed, a so-called “objective” researcher, loves finding differences of opinion and presenting a variety of approaches.

But, learning Torah cannot conclude there, because it is a “living Torah” with which we identify and which we observe. So, what does one do when the same mitzvah has a number of different reasons? Which do we take home to work with?

One might say that everyone should choose whichever explanation he finds easiest to integrate. Some feel that they belong to the school of the Sefer Hachinuch, others might go to study at Abarbanel’s yeshivah, while others will stoop beneath the broad shade of Nachmanides’ umbrella. However, a deeper approach is to inter-include all the different interpretations to form a mosaic that connects them all into one complete tapestry. The latter approach is that of the Torah’s inner dimension, the ability to incorporate different (or even opposing) ideas into one scheme.

In our current context, we will use two familiar “triplets” that correspond to the three explanations that we have learnt. One well-known idea from the Zohar states, “There are three connections, the Jewish People, the Torah and the Almighty. The Jewish People connect to the Torah and the Torah connects with the Almighty.”[7] This triplet is woven into our entire world?there can be no Torah without God, there is no Torah without the Jewish People, and for the Jewish People, life without the Torah is not a life.

Now we can see that the Sefer Chinuch emphasizes the “Jewish” aspect of the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents?for us, our parents are the most significant Jews who we come into contact with. Abarbanel’s interpretation deals with the Torah’s perspective, as it were?it is thanks to our parents that we receive the Torah’s heritage. Nachmanides’ interpretation deals with God’s angle?our parents are the rope that connects us with God, our first Father.

Looking at the mitzvah in this way allows us to accept all three interpretations at once, without forgoing any of them! In fact, combining all three in this way completes the whole picture. Nonetheless, even after each explanation has its place within the whole picture, it may certainly be that each individual still chooses the one example that appeals to him most, each according to his way and to his soul-root (as in “Educate a youth according to his way”).[8]

My Sweet Parents

The second triplet that comes to our aid are the three basic terms that the Ba'al Shem Tov introduced, which have become a basic tenet of Chassidut (even though they were relatively unknown until relatively recently). According to the Ba'al Shem Tov every proper process in God’s service is comprised of three basic stages, submission, separation and sweetening.[9] Our context supplies a ready explanation for these three concepts:

We begin with a sense of submission. The first words a Jew says when he wakes up in the morning are “I thankfully acknowledge You, living and enduring King, for You have compassionately restored my soul within me.” You just opened your eyes and you are living and breathing? Don’t be ungrateful! Know how to say thank you.[10] This should also be our initial relationship with our parents: know how to thank those who brought you into the world and brought you up (as in the Sefer Hachinuch’s explanation). From this perspective, honoring our parents educates us not to be egoistic and arrogant, but to recognize the fact that we are dependent and reliant.

Having initially submitted ourselves in this way, we now come to the stage of separation. Once I am prepared to surrender myself to God, with an initial sense of the fact that I am inconsequential and that I have a lot to rectify?I begin to distinguish more and more between good and evil, and to identify which path should be avoided and which to adopt. This is how it is with honoring one’s parents: we realize that our parents are the ones who gave us our first value system to distinguish between good and evil—prohibited and permitted, truth and falsehood—and through them I receive my Jewish heritage (as Abarbanel explains); the tradition of the Chosen People who God gave the Torah to.

Once we have gone through the stages of submission and separation, we can move on to the sweetening stage. In our service of God, after toiling to separate the bad parts of myself, and to identify with the good parts, I eventually begin to see how they all give rise to something good and how everything has a positive side that eventually sweetens reality. With regards to our parents: beyond the all-important sense of gratitude towards them, and beyond the unrelinquishable chain of tradition that they transmitted to me, I look straight at my parents and realize that as they are, for me they are God’s representatives on earth (as Nachmanides explains).

Then we realize that God is our Father (and to a certain extent, even our Mother[11]) and not for naught did He create us by means of our two parents via who we get our first glimpse of the world. God chose to reveal Himself to us as a “Father” figure, and as such, my own father means everything to me. My “final Father” who brought me into the world reflects my “First Father”; everyone’s sweet Father in Heaven.


[1] Kidushin 31b.

[2] Mitzvah 33.

[3] See Vayikra Rabah 9:3.

[4] Deuteronomy 33:4.

[5] Niddah 31a.

[6] See the Rama’s note on Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 6:1.

[7] Zohar Vayikra 73a.

[8] Proverbs 22:6. The complete verse reads, “Educate a youth according to his way and even when he grows old he will not budge from it.” In our context we can interpret this to mean that initially, one follows the way that best suits the youth, one of the many possible paths of the Torah that he might choose. Later, when he has grown older and wiser, he can realize the interinclusion of all the different possible paths. Yet, even at this stage of life, he will not budge from his original approach because he still has a penchant for it because it is something that belongs to his soul-root.

[9] Keter Shem Tov 28. For an expansion on this subject, see our book, Transforming Darkness into Light.

[10]  The initial letters of “Know how to say thank you” (???? ?????? ???????) spell out the name of the letter dalet (??????), which alludes to lowliness (???????).

[11] For example in the verse, “As a man whose mother comforts him, so I will comfort you” (Isaiah 66:13).

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Which would you prefer, more about a “rebellious” child, or a “good” child? Most parents and educators would choose the good, well-behaved and polite child who does everything he is told and behaves as expected of him. Who needs the trials and tribulations of the rebellious child?!

But, a seasoned educator may well prefer a rebellious child. He knows that this kind of child is a great challenge, but he also knows that beneath the rebellious shell hides a special soul. A sharp-witted Chassidic saying states, “If he does no harm, he will do no good!” Meaning that if the child does no harm as a youngster, when they grow up they may just be like everyone else…

The Days of the Rebellious

So why are we talking about rebellious children now? Because we are now in the period that is referred to as “the days of the rebellious,” or in Hebrew, “shovavim.” In Rabbinic literature, a custom is mentioned to fast and repent during the weeks of the first six Torah portions in the book of Exodus.[1] The initial letters of the names of these six portions in Hebrew spell out the word “rebellious” (??????????; shovavim). Later, Kabbalists, headed by the Holy Arizal, authorized the custom of fasting and repenting while revealing the allusions and profound meditations that abound during this time period.[2] However, as the generations pass, the practice of fasting has gradually diminished, as the great Chassidic masters since the Ba'al Shem Tov have instructed. Nowadays, the recommendation is to donate charity abundantly instead of fasting, since money is a person’s “energy,” and giving it away is considered to be like a physical fast. In addition, many communities have the custom of saying extra prayers during this time period, especially Psalms (which are always a good thing to say).

In modern Hebrew, the word shovav (???????) has taken on the connotation of “mischievous,” which sounds quite playful. However, in its Biblical context, the word means “rebellious,” which does not have a positive connotation at all. Indeed, as we must work to appreciate the genuine meaning of any Hebrew word, when we look at the various forms of this word in the Torah, we discover that it certainly is a negative adjective. Examples of this negativity can be seen in the verses, “He went rebelliously following his heart,”[3] “Return, rebellious sons,”[4] etc... The scriptural rebel does not just play childish pranks; he is mutinous, licentious and defiant.[5]

The days of shovavim are dedicated to rectifying sin, and to repenting for our rebellious behavior. In particular, this refers to the sin of “the flaw of the covenant” (i.e., illicit sexual behavior), beginning with the promiscuous thoughts that contaminate the mind through a sense of sight that wanders around unchecked, culminating in complete physical arousal (God forbid). The gravity of this sin lies in the fact that our ability to achieve our God-given potentials are “lost” during the process. However, it is clear that this flaw can be rectified, as we read in the Torah portions of these weeks how the entire Jewish nation was indeed lost under the Egyptian bondage. Yet, as the Jewish People left with “great possessions,” and redeemed all the holy sparks that were in captivity, so too we can reclaim the sparks of achievement lost by this sin.

Although, in its particular sense, this sin relates more to men than to women, in its more general sense, this flaw exists in women too. “Covenant” refers to a genuine connection between souls, and when a woman does not make a single, faithful alliance with one man, but explores other options in thought, speech or action, she damages her part of the covenant.

Enough with Playing Around

What rectification can there be for this type of evil mischief?

At first glance it appears that the rectification is quite simple: just pull back to the other direction. If until now you have been a mischievous rebel, from now on, you must get back into line, accept the yoke of discipline and begin to “behave nicely.” Although children have something mischievous about them, they must finally grow up and realize that licentiousness is not the goal. There are laws and there is a Judge, there is justice and truth; and the time has come for a person to take control of himself and begin doing what should be done and not what he feels like doing.

This can be appreciated well in the context of “doing teshuvah” (i.e., returning back to God and His Torah). Many Jewish people can testify how they lived for years in this “rebellious” way, doing what they liked and never listening to anyone who told them to do otherwise. Such people may have believed that they need not observe the Jewish traditions that they could not comprehend. But then, the day arrived and our no-longer-juvenile delinquent suddenly realized that the very same ancient Torah that his grandfather studied in yeshivah, and those very same mitzvot that his grandmother devoted her life to, are not an outdated museum piece that has become obsolete. Ours is a living Torah that never ages; a true Torah whose finest accents conceal the most profound wisdom. At that point, he took himself in hand and realized that until now he had lived a hollow life, a life of rebellion that offered an imaginary sense of freedom and pleasure but was irresponsible and immature.

The Good Rebels

But, although changing to a religious lifestyle is a long way along the road of teshuvah, the ultimate rectification is yet to come. We have already mentioned that a mischievous child contains a special treasure of potential. Their energy and astuteness are precious assets that cry out for a guiding hand. Does doing teshuvah mean completely suppressing all mischievousness and rebelliousness? Does it mean that we all become insipid, obedient automatons, without any spark of daring and defiance? Unfortunately, ba’alei teshuvah do suffer from this type of negative image, but the time has come to release ourselves from it. The time has come for all rebels to make good mischief and they are all invited to transform their rebelliousness into holy mutiny.

When we look more carefully at the abovementioned verses that refer to rebels, we see that they do have a positive side. For instance, the verse, “Return, rebellious sons,” concludes with the phrase, “I will heal your rebelliousness,” meaning that there is a cure for rebelliousness. In fact, the word “rebellious” (???????) is from the same root as “return” (?????), which is the root of teshuvah (??????????). This root almost always appears in a very positive context, as in the verse, “Return rebellious sons” (??????? ??????? ??????????) in which the two words appear in conjunction with each other. Teshuvah transforms the rebel into a good mutineer.

This means that someone who has a rebellious personality does not need to suppress the vital energy that burns inside him. The rebel is astute and quick. He has courage and audacity. But now he must behave with “holy boldness,” as the mishnah states, “Be as bold as a leopard… to perform the will of your Father in Heaven.”[6] We need to make use of all our faculties and talents and with wisdom and insight harness them to serve God. Indeed, the most essential principle of Judaism is “accepting the yoke of Heaven.” In contrast, licentiousness is referred to as “throwing off the yoke,” and in Chassidic thought is considered the archetypal sin of impurity.

Once an individual has submitted and accepted Heaven’s yoke upon him, he reveals that this type of yoke is fun! Within the framework of Torah and mitzvot there is a very broad scope for active personal initiative. And yes, there is even room for the added “spice” of mischievousness and rebellion. So, for example, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson instructed a ba’al teshuvah (returner to Judaism) whose name was Nimrod (????????; meaning “Let us rebel”), that there was no need for him to change his name. Despite the fact that the Biblical Nimrod was the image of a negative rebel who rebelled against the Almighty, the modern Nimrod must now utilize this quality of rebelliousness positively and rebel against the counterfeit conventions of the world at large.

Responsible Rebellion

A successful rebel has freedom of thought and is quick, assertive and pragmatic. All these qualities are something that we require?like the air we breathe?regarding all that relates to the rectification of the public face of the Jewish People. Only such a positive rebellious nature can help us shake off the fetters of an alienated establishment, and the foreign husks that encase us. Only a positive rebel can initiate the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel that we desire. We are in dire need of such holy rebels, who can “overturn the world” and transform us all into genuine ba’alei teshuvah (returnees). However, it must be stressed that our good rebel must act out of a sense of mutual responsibility for the entire Jewish People.[7]

In conclusion, let’s remember that we are in the year 5774, which, as explained elsewhere, is an allusion to the holy boldness and audacity that is required to breathe new life into the world.[8] For this we pray that all rebels will become ba’alei teshuvah and will utilize their rebelliousness to benefit the entire Jewish People and the whole world.

from Rabbi Ginsburgh’s classes of 27th Shevat 5772 and 16th Tevet 5774



[1] Sefer Haminhagim Tirna (Purim); Leket Yosher (p. 116); Levush Orach Chayim 685.

[2] See Birkei Yosef, Orach Chayim 685:1.

[3] Isaiah 57:17.

[4] Jeremiah 3:22.

[5] See the root shin-vav-bet (??"?) in Radak’s Sefer Hashorashim, there he enumerates three principles, the third of which is rebellion.

[6] Avot 5:20.

[7] In Hebrew, “shoulder” (??????), the seat of responsibility, has the same numerical value as “rebels” (??????????). “Shoulder” (??????) is also the name of the city of Shechem (??????) where all the Jewish People became responsible for one another. It is also the city where Joseph is buried. Joseph in particular was one who was bold enough to reject worldly pleasures for holiness and he also took care of his brethren and led an entire country through difficult times.

[8]  ???"? – Year of “Holy Boldness” (?????? ????????????)

 

holding hands

Why do we need to honor our parents?

You might ask, rx what is the question? Who knows what’s good for a child better than their parents? But it’s no so straightforward. The commandment to “Honor your father and your mother” is not directed at a young child, but to an adult who is obligated to keep the mitzvot. Perhaps there are those who believe (mostly children…) that the commandment to respect your parents ends with the bar-mitzvah celebration, but in truth, it is the opposite.

Let’s imagine, for example, a middle-aged individual who has a family of his own, and might even be more astute than his aged parents?they are worldly and sophisticated, but his parents belong to the old school. Nonetheless, even in such a case, one must always respect parents. We must take care of our parents as they grow older, address them respectfully, never calling them by their first names, etc., etc. This is a particularly relevant situation in our day and age when many ba’alei teshuvah (returneees to God and His Torah) have rebelled against their parents approach to life, yet nonetheless, respect them.

True, honoring one’s parents is an accepted social norm in almost every human society, and the sages even offer one example of a non-Jew who behaved respectfully towards his father (Damah ben Netinah[1]). Nonetheless, since this practice has been permanently sealed as a mitzvah?in the Ten Commandments, no less?we can study the reasons for the mitzvah and delve into its depths.

First, let’s note the location of the mitzvah. The Ten Commandments are clearly divided into two halves, the first five commandments, written on the right hand tablet of the Tablets of the Covenant, and the second five, on the left side. The first five commandments deal mainly with commandments between man and God, such as belief in God, “I am Havayah your God”; the prohibition against idolatry, “You shall have no gods besides Me; Shabbat, “Remember the Shabbat day.” The five second commandments are devoted to commandments between man and his fellowman: “Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not falsely testify against your fellowman. Do not covet…”

Yet, the commandment to honor one’s parents appears at the end of the first five commandments, which implies that it belongs to the commandments between man and God! On the other hand, the fact that it concludes the commandments between man and God alludes to the fact that this commandment serves as a transition between these commandments and the commandments that relate to man and his fellowman.

Gratitude

Let’s now turn to the greatest commentators to reveal a variety of ways to explain the commandment of honoring one’s parents. Here is what Sefer Hachinuch has to say:[2]

The roots of the mitzvah are that one should acknowledge and do acts of kindness for one who does him a favor, and he should not be an ungrateful, neglectful villain, which is an extremely evil and despicable trait before God and mankind. He should pay attention to the fact that his parents are the cause of his existence in the world, therefore it is truly essential for him to do everything in his power to respect them in every way, because they brought him into the world and they exerted themselves in various efforts when he was a child.

Simply put, a good person is one who knows how to be appreciative of the kindnesses that people do for him, and not ungrateful. Since there is no kindness greater than that which parents have granted their children, honoring one’s parents is simply a matter of good human relations. However, the Chinuch continues:

Once he has established this trait in his psyche, he may elevate it to realize the Almighty’s kindness, for He is his cause and the cause of his forefathers back to the first man, Adam. He has brought him into the world and supplied him with his needs his entire life and structured his composition and perfected his limbs, and has given him an intellectual, understanding soul. And if God had not graced him with his soul he would be like a horse, a mule that does not understand. And he should meditate upon how very much he should be careful in His service.

The essence of this teaching is that someone who is grateful towards his parents will know how to be grateful towards his Creator.

Indeed, although gratitude is the basis of all good human relationships, there is something unique in the gratitude expressed by honoring one’s parents. Whereas regular gratitude might be perceived on a fundamental give-and-take level of relationship whereby if I express gratitude for the kindnesses people do for me, then others will relate to me accordingly. This implies that in fact the person only has their own best interests at heart, and would gladly relinquish the tedious obligation to express thanks every time someone does him a favor. By contrast, honoring one’s parents is a far more correct and suitable type of gratitude?it’s good to live with a sense of reliance and dependency and to express our gratitude to those to whom we will always be indebted, even when they no longer have the power to help us. Therefore, this mitzvah is a custom built bridge that connects between human relationships and the relationship between man and God. It is good to feel dependent on God, to thank Him at every moment for the gift of life that He grants us in His loving-kindness, and obviously, to perform His will and His commandments.

Tradition! Tradition!

Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel finds another reason for the commandment of honoring one’s parents:

The foundation of this mitzvah is so that the parents’ conveyance should be important in an individual’s mind and he should believe in it and rely on it. And since the power of this commandment to believe in the conveyance of one’s predecessors?which is an all-inclusive principle in the Torah and no reality can be imagined without it?therefore this commandment is included in the five Divine commandments on the first tablet, and is not one of the humanitarian commandments that are on the second tablet.

In simple words, the Torah is founded on “conveyance” (????????), i.e., “tradition.” Without a living tradition that transmits the Torah from generation to generation, we would not observe the Torah, nor would we believe in it. This tradition is transmitted via our parents and respecting our parents means respecting their heritage. This is how Abarbanel explains why this mitzvah is written on the first five “Divine” commandments, which deal with the relationship between man and God, and not in the second, “humanitarian” commandments, which deal with regular human relationships.

Does this opinion hold that honoring one’s parents is only a commandment between man and God? Taking a more detailed look, we see that it is an “intermediary” between human relationships and man’s relationship with God. This is because the commandment to honor the conveyer of tradition did not appear from nowhere, but developed, as it were, from the correct human relationships which are supposed to exist in every human society. After all, our Jewish parents don’t only transmit folklores, but provide the child with a fundamental value system. Moreover, our parents were the first to bring us into contact with the concept of authority – therefore any good social system must be built on the foundation of a sense of respect towards one’s parents as representatives of heritage, authority and hierarchy. One might say that this is the meaning of, “Good manners preceded the Torah”[3]; initially, respecting one’s parents was “good manners,” but now, since the revelation of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, parents are the bearers of our special Jewish heritage, the heritage of the Torah, “Moses commanded us the Torah, a heritage for the congregation of Jacob.”[4] Therefore, our respect for them should be more sophisticated.

Our First Father and our Last Father

In his commentary on the Torah, Nachmanides reveals an even deeper level to this mitzvah:

This [mitzvah] completes everything that we are obliged in the words of the Creator in and of His own honor, and it now continues to command us regarding the creations and it begins with the father, who for his offspring is like the Creator who participates in his formation; for God is our first Father and our parent is our last father… as I have commanded you in My honor, so I command you to honor the one who is a partner with Me in your formation.

Nachmanides’ interpretation implies that the parents themselves serve as an intermediary between the Creator and His creations. “There are three partners in the creation of a child—the Almighty, father, and mother.”[5] The parents supply the physical body while God supplies the soul. Yet, despite this division of realms, the body hosts the soul, and the Almighty does the incredible feat of connecting the two.[6] This is why even the parents’ role in the partnership also represents the Divine part. If one contemplates only oneself, then life appears to be obvious. It’s quite clear to me that I exist. But if we broaden our scope to include our parents, who brought us into the world, we can sense the incredible wonder of our life as something that was created from the Divine nothingness. In addition, we also realize that our beloved parents are our “last father” in the chain that is headed by our “first Father,” the Creator Himself.

Three Connections in Honoring One’s Parents

We have seen three different explanations of the mitzvah to honor one’s parents. If we were examining this in a detached, rational way, we might suffice with that. Indeed, a so-called “objective” researcher, loves finding differences of opinion and presenting a variety of approaches.

But, learning Torah cannot conclude there, because it is a “living Torah” with which we identify and which we observe. So, what does one do when the same mitzvah has a number of different reasons? Which do we take home to work with?

One might say that everyone should choose whichever explanation he finds easiest to integrate. Some feel that they belong to the school of the Sefer Hachinuch, others might go to study at Abarbanel’s yeshivah, while others will stoop beneath the broad shade of Nachmanides’ umbrella. However, a deeper approach is to inter-include all the different interpretations to form a mosaic that connects them all into one complete tapestry. The latter approach is that of the Torah’s inner dimension, the ability to incorporate different (or even opposing) ideas into one scheme.

In our current context, we will use two familiar “triplets” that correspond to the three explanations that we have learnt. One well-known idea from the Zohar states, “There are three connections, the Jewish People, the Torah and the Almighty. The Jewish People connect to the Torah and the Torah connects with the Almighty.”[7] This triplet is woven into our entire world?there can be no Torah without God, there is no Torah without the Jewish People, and for the Jewish People, life without the Torah is not a life.

Now we can see that the Sefer Chinuch emphasizes the “Jewish” aspect of the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents?for us, our parents are the most significant Jews who we come into contact with. Abarbanel’s interpretation deals with the Torah’s perspective, as it were?it is thanks to our parents that we receive the Torah’s heritage. Nachmanides’ interpretation deals with God’s angle?our parents are the rope that connects us with God, our first Father.

Looking at the mitzvah in this way allows us to accept all three interpretations at once, without forgoing any of them! In fact, combining all three in this way completes the whole picture. Nonetheless, even after each explanation has its place within the whole picture, it may certainly be that each individual still chooses the one example that appeals to him most, each according to his way and to his soul-root (as in “Educate a youth according to his way”).[8]

My Sweet Parents

The second triplet that comes to our aid are the three basic terms that the Ba'al Shem Tov introduced, which have become a basic tenet of Chassidut (even though they were relatively unknown until relatively recently). According to the Ba'al Shem Tov every proper process in God’s service is comprised of three basic stages, submission, separation and sweetening.[9] Our context supplies a ready explanation for these three concepts:

We begin with a sense of submission. The first words a Jew says when he wakes up in the morning are “I thankfully acknowledge You, living and enduring King, for You have compassionately restored my soul within me.” You just opened your eyes and you are living and breathing? Don’t be ungrateful! Know how to say thank you.[10] This should also be our initial relationship with our parents: know how to thank those who brought you into the world and brought you up (as in the Sefer Hachinuch’s explanation). From this perspective, honoring our parents educates us not to be egoistic and arrogant, but to recognize the fact that we are dependent and reliant.

Having initially submitted ourselves in this way, we now come to the stage of separation. Once I am prepared to surrender myself to God, with an initial sense of the fact that I am inconsequential and that I have a lot to rectify?I begin to distinguish more and more between good and evil, and to identify which path should be avoided and which to adopt. This is how it is with honoring one’s parents: we realize that our parents are the ones who gave us our first value system to distinguish between good and evil—prohibited and permitted, truth and falsehood—and through them I receive my Jewish heritage (as Abarbanel explains); the tradition of the Chosen People who God gave the Torah to.

Once we have gone through the stages of submission and separation, we can move on to the sweetening stage. In our service of God, after toiling to separate the bad parts of myself, and to identify with the good parts, I eventually begin to see how they all give rise to something good and how everything has a positive side that eventually sweetens reality. With regards to our parents: beyond the all-important sense of gratitude towards them, and beyond the unrelinquishable chain of tradition that they transmitted to me, I look straight at my parents and realize that as they are, for me they are God’s representatives on earth (as Nachmanides explains).

Then we realize that God is our Father (and to a certain extent, even our Mother[11]) and not for naught did He create us by means of our two parents via who we get our first glimpse of the world. God chose to reveal Himself to us as a “Father” figure, and as such, my own father means everything to me. My “final Father” who brought me into the world reflects my “First Father”; everyone’s sweet Father in Heaven.


[1] Kidushin 31b.

[2] Mitzvah 33.

[3] See Vayikra Rabah 9:3.

[4] Deuteronomy 33:4.

[5] Niddah 31a.

[6] See the Rama’s note on Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 6:1.

[7] Zohar Vayikra 73a.

[8] Proverbs 22:6. The complete verse reads, “Educate a youth according to his way and even when he grows old he will not budge from it.” In our context we can interpret this to mean that initially, one follows the way that best suits the youth, one of the many possible paths of the Torah that he might choose. Later, when he has grown older and wiser, he can realize the interinclusion of all the different possible paths. Yet, even at this stage of life, he will not budge from his original approach because he still has a penchant for it because it is something that belongs to his soul-root.

[9] Keter Shem Tov 28. For an expansion on this subject, see our book, Transforming Darkness into Light.

[10]  The initial letters of “Know how to say thank you” (???? ?????? ???????) spell out the name of the letter dalet (??????), which alludes to lowliness (???????).

[11] For example in the verse, “As a man whose mother comforts him, so I will comfort you” (Isaiah 66:13).

rebbetzin

The 22nd of Shevat marks the passing of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, more about devoted wife of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. What follows in an excerpt from a class given on the 22nd of Shevat 5757 to women in Rechovot.

The Purpose of Creation

The account of creation commences with the words, “In the beginning God created,” and the final verse of creation concludes with the words, “That God created to do.”[1]

The sages explain that “God created to do” means that when God created the universe, He gave the souls of the Jewish People?His human messengers on earth?the responsibility of completing creation through their deeds. By rectifying creation in this way, the Jewish soul consummates God’s initial creation. Thus, the closing statement of creation, “That God created to do” is infused with great significance; the ultimate purpose of creation. This is especially relevant to the function of the Jewish woman, as we shall see.

In Kabbalah, the woman represents the sefirah of kingdom, which is the final stage that assimilates all the energies from the sefirot above it, thus integrating the Divine influx into the lower realms and ultimately reflecting it all back up to the Creator. Thus, the sefirah of kingdom, the definitive feminine principle in Kabbalah, as with the concluding words in the account of creation, is also identified with the final purpose of creation.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Divine Name that appears exclusively throughout the first account of creation is the Name related to nature,[2] Elokim, while God’s Essential Name, Havayah, does not appear there explicitly at all. Nonetheless, there are several words in this account that have numerical values that are multiples of 26, the numerical value of Havayah (???').[3] The most significant word that is a multiple of this number is the final word, “to do” (?????????), which has a numerical value of 806, which equals 31 times 26. Now 31 is the numerical value of another one of God’s Appellations, pronounced Kel (???).[4] From here we see that the secret of this last word, which is infused with the final purpose that God intended to complete and consummate creation, is the product of these two Names, Kel and Havayah.[5]

Constructing Rachel’s Persona

Indeed, in Kabbalah we find another allusion to the numerical value of “to do” and its secret meaning to the ultimate rectification of creation. This is because 806 is also the numerical value of a very significant Kabbalistic idiom, “Constructing Rachel’s persona” (???????? ????????? ?????). This phrase refers to the most general feminine figure in the Torah, our Matriarch, Rachel. Since Rachel represents the entire Jewish People, completing her construction is the ultimate stage of the redemption process. “Constructing Rachel’s persona” is also often referred to as “constructing the [sefirah of] kingdom,” which, as mentioned above, is also a feminine concept in Kabbalah.

The Torah describes the creation of Eve, the first woman, with the words, “And He [God] constructed the side.”[6] The Talmud[7] learns from this verse that “additional understanding was given to a woman than to a man,” because the word “And He constructed” (???????) shares the same root with “understanding” (???????). A woman is called a “house,”[8] and with her innate understanding and insight, she is the one who builds the home, as the verse states, “The wisest women, [each] builds her home.”[9] So we learn that a woman needs to be “built,” and once she is constructed it is also she who has the innate ability to build. Rachel in particular is referred to as “the mainstay of the home,”[10] a reference to the foundations of a building.

Direct Light and Reflected Light

Chassidut teaches us that God is re-creating the world at every moment. Inherent in the concept of constant re-creation is the concept of Divine Providence, because while at every moment He is recreating the substance of creation, He is also making events happen in either manifest or mysterious ways. To the extent that we are able to comprehend it, God is communicating with us through those events that relate to us. He is addressing us through them in anticipation of our response. Thus, the explanation of the phrase, “Which God created to do” is tuning into God’s creation (“Which He created”) followed by our integration of God’s communication through creation, and our subsequent correct response (“to do”). This is one example of “rectifying” reality.

God creates reality at every moment with an influx of Divine energy, which is referred to in the Torah as God “speaking” directly to reality, e.g., “Let there be light!”[11] Moreover, the Ba'al Shem Tov teaches us that not only is God constantly re-creating the substance of reality, but through His constant re-creation of the world, God is speaking to us. Everything that God does is a linguistic proverb that is asking something of us, and if we would only be able to understand God's language and reply accordingly, creation would be rectified.

God’s speech, His kingdom, which creates and vitalizes our material world at every moment, is concealed by so many layers that it is very difficult to reveal it. In Kabbalah and Chassidut this is referred to as the “falling” of kingdom, which has been so distanced and concealed from God’s infinite light that it has no recollection of its initial state of union with the Divine, and experiences itself as a completely separate state of consciousness.[12] This is why reality does not always respond correctly to God’s messages.

An example of a proper response is in God’s command “Let there be light,” the response to which was, “And there was light,” which relates to the light that is reflected back from reality by God’s own words, as it were. “And there was light” (??????? ????) has a numerical value of 238, the value of Rachel (?????), which indicates, as mentioned, that reflected light from the rectified sefirah of kingdom pertains to the construction of Rachel’s persona.

So we see that Rachel, the kingdom, is particularly related to language and speech. The ultimate “to do” is intercepting God’s words and “speaking back” to the Almighty in the correct manner[13] through our appropriate reaction to His Divine input.

The Right Place, the Right Time, the Right Response

A magnificent anecdote that beautifully illustrates the application of this principle in real life was told by Reb Chesed Halberstam, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka’s aide and driver. Once when she went shopping, they approached a traffic jam that was caused by a large van that had parked in the middle of the street, preventing the traffic from moving. Reb Chesed immediately began reversing the car to make a detour to their destination. However, as he started to back the car away, the Rebbetzin stopped him. She explained that her father, the previous Rebbe, always taught her that whenever someone is confronted by an event, especially when he is on the way, it is by Divine Providence. As the verse states, “From Havayah are the steps of man prepared and his path does He desire.”[14] When one is on a journey, one is more exposed to Divine Providence than in any other context.[15] If we have refined our eyesight then everything that God shows us is providential, and we should learn the lesson it is intended to teach us, and act on it. So, said the Rebbetzin, we can't just leave the scene without trying to understand the message that God is trying to convey to us. They got out of the car and saw that the van was a moving van, and that furniture was being removed from a nearby apartment. When they inquired, they discovered that a family was being evacuated from their home. The Rebbetzin located the mother of the family, a Russian immigrant, who explained to her that they were being evacuated because they were unable to pay the rent. The Rebbetzin asked how much they owed and she replied that the sum was 4,000 dollars. Immediately, the Rebbetzin wrote out a check for 4,000 dollars and told the van to take the furniture back into the apartment.

The female is more receptive to Divine Providence than the male. As we can see from the above story, this is a result of her firm belief that everything is from God. She also knows better how to respond correctly to God’s messages, which in the story is responding by writing and giving the check. This is the meaning of “To do” that we explained above, the last word of the creation account. By her correct response of writing out the check and giving it to the needy family, the Rebbetzin took the somethingness of creation (the painful evacuation of a family from their home), and returned it to a revelation of Divine nothingness (an act of loving-kindness that revealed the Godliness of creation).[16]

When we are receptive to God’s Divine Providence in this way, every scene is revealed as a Divine conversation between God and His creation. This conversation is consummated through our correct approach to the circumstances through our good deeds.



[1]     Genesis 2:3. “To do” (?????????) also means “to rectify.”

[2]     The numerical value of the Name “Elokim” (????????) is equal to the numerical value of “nature” (????).

[3]     The Tikunei Zohar explains that the secrets of the first word of creation, “In the beginning” (???????????), allude to the purpose of creation. Similarly, the concluding word of this story, “To do” (?????????) is also clearly related to the purpose of creation, referring to the fact that God created the world for us to rectify it.

[4]     Havayah corresponds to the sefirah of beauty, relating in particular to Divine compassion; Kel corresponds to the sefirah of loving-kindness. For more on the different Names of God and their significances, see What You Need to Know About Kabbalah, Part III.

[5]     These two Names of God appear in juxtaposition in only one verse in the entire Torah, “Kel Havayah and He will illuminate us” (??? ???' ???????? ?????); Psalms 118:27. When he first mentioned the phrase “Mashiach Now!” the Rebbe explained that when he said "Now!" he envisioned the word written in Hebrew letters (???). This spelling has a numerical value of 57, which is the sum of the values of these two Names, Kel (31) and Havayah (26) and this was the Rebbe’s intention when he said “Now!” When these two Names are united, then Mashiach, the ultimate purpose of creation, appears “Now.”

[6]     Genesis 2:22.

[7]     Niddah 45b.

[8]     Shabbat 118b; Gitin 52a.

[9]     Proverbs 14:1.

[10]    “Mainstay” (???????) is conjugate to “barren” (???????), a word which is used in the Torah in relation to Rachel in particular (see Genesis 29:31). Moreover, the Rebbe would profusely use the phrase, “Action is the imperative” (?????????? ???? ????????), where “imperative” (??????) also has the same root, and “Action” (????????) is the same root as “To do” (?????????).

[11]    In Kabbalistic terminology, the influx of Divine energy is called, “Direct light” (???? ??????), and our reaction to it is “returning light” (???? ??????).

[12]    See our book in Hebrew, Inyan Hatefillah Ve’hahitbonenut, p. 32.

[13]    We see how this is achieved in the midrash which describes Rachel’s words to God, which He accepts and says, “Withhold your eyes from tears” etc. See, Eichah Rabah, introduction 24.

[14]    Psalms 37:23.

[15]    Elsewhere, it is explained that while in general we are in contact with the three lower levels of the soul (the nefesh, ruach and neshamah), while travelling one is more connected to the second highest level of the soul, “The Living Soul” (??????).

[16]    This is similar to the teaching of the Magid, the Ba'al Shem Tov’s successor, that God is re-creating the world from nothing at every second and simultaneously, through the mitzvot that they do, the tzadikim are returning God's creation to nothing by recognizing and acknowledging that phenomenon of constant re-creation. In this way they manifest and reveal God’s “nothingness” in the apparent somethingness of creation.

3 Responses to “Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson: A Lesson in Building the World”

  1. Howard Barry Schatz says:

    Rabbi,

    Please visit me whenever you come to the USA, and I will explain how gematria extends into the mathematics and physics of Creation as defined by the Sefer Yetzirah — shaping all aspects of the Torah — and how it is all encrypted within the Tetragrammaton.

    Sincerely,
    Howard Barry Schatz

    • benjamin says:

      Thank you for sharing this….Perhaps I am not alone when I say this Blog articulates i.e. brings focus on much that afore resides in peripheral vision. Upon reflection, the resonance of chedvah.

  2. Catherine says:

    The sentence I have question about.
    “And He constructed” (וַיִבֶן) shares the same root with “understanding” (בִּינָה). A woman is called a “house,”
    Please enlighten me Rabbi, for I seek to understand. As I looked up the root of understanding (beit yod) , I did not find anything that related to construction. I did however find house, palace, and even more interesting to me, egg.

    Did I utilize the wrong root somehow. My learning into the deeper parts of our language is new as I was not raised in synagogue but returning to my roots and and seeking understanding and construction I may be seeking the wrong root :)

    Thank you for any time you are willing and able to give to me to respond to help direct me.