Shabbat and Honoring One's Parents
Yitro (Exodus 18-20 )
The highlight of this week's Torah Portion is the Ten Commandments. The fourth mitzvah is to remember the Shabbat,(1) and the fifth is honoring one's parents.(2) This juxtaposition may not seem to be of great significance, however, this is not the only time in the Torah that these two seemingly unrelated mitzvot are juxtaposed. In the Torah Portion of Kedoshim, the two mitzvot are actually mentioned in the same verse: "Every man: Your mother and father shall you revere; and My Sabbaths shall you observe - I am HaShem, your God." (3) Chazal do indeed extrapolate lessons from this verse - they explain that even though one must honor and revere his parents, this obligation does not extend itself to the point where he should listen to his parents' command to break Shabbos or any other Mitzvah in the Torah. The commentaries ask why the Torah chooses Shabbos in particular to teach that honoring one's parents does not override other Mitzvot.(4) Indeed, Shabbat is considered one of the most severe mitzvot to transgress in terms of its punishment so one may still erroneously think that other, less serious mitzvot could perhaps be overridden by the Mitva of honoring one's parents.
Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky offers a homiletical explanation as to the juxtaposition of these two mitzvot. This explanation can perhaps also be used to answer why the verse chose Shabbat in particular when informing us that honoring parents does not override mitzvot.(5) In his old age, Rav Kamenetsky was once on an airplane with some of his grandchildren. He was sitting next to another elderly man who was a secular Israeli professor. The professor noticed how much Rav Kamenetsky's grandchildren were honoring and serving him. He told Rav Kamenetsky that his own grandchildren did not give him any honor or respect; he asked the Rabbi what was the difference between the two of them? The Rav answered, that the secular belief is that man originates from apes, therefore each generation is one step further from being an ape. It is logical that each generation is more advanced than its predecessors and consequently there is no reason why young people should honor old people, in fact it should be the reverse - the old should look up to the more 'advanced' young. That is why the professor's grandchildren accorded him no honor.
In contrast the Torah point of view is that the further one goes back in history, the closer one gets to the Act of Creation and the first man, Adam. Adam was the most holy man, being that he was created by God himself, so-to-speak. Each generation after him is one step further away from that great Act of Creation. Accordingly, each generation views the previous ones as being superior. That, Rav Kamenetsky explained, was why his grandchildren gave him so much respect.
With this elucidation, Rav Kamenetsky explained the juxtaposition of the mitzvot of honoring one's parents and keeping Shabbat. Shabbat represents belief in the Act of Creation in that it commemorates how God created the world in six days and then rested. Observing Shabbat demonstrates a recognition that God created the world. When a person has that recognition, he will automatically come to the accompanying realization that each generation is closer to that Act of Creation and therefore worthy of respect. That is the connection between the two mitzvot - they both emanate from a belief in God's creation of the world.
Rav Kamenetsky's explanation can also be used to explain why the Rabbis chose Shabbos in particular when teaching that honoring parents does not override the mitzvot of the Torah. As the Ohr HaChaim explains, the end of the verse, "I am HaShem" shows us that honoring one's parents does not override any mitzvot because all mitzvot come from the necessity to perform God's will, including honoring one's parents. Yet the Torah made a specific mention of Shabbat because the message of Shabbat is intrinsically connected to honoring one's parents. A person who honors one's parents recognizes Creation, and it follows that he should also observe the Shabbat which represents the ultimate commemoration of Creation.(6)
This view of elder generations illuminates to us the Torah attitude towards the past, and its stark contrast to that of the secular world. The secular view emphasizes the value of progress whilst often deemphasizing adherence to past values. The Torah view stresses adherence to the values that were passed down since Mattan Torah (the Giving of the Torah). It approaches changes in the modern world in the context of those values. Thus, whilst there have often been valid new approaches and movements in Jewish history(7) they always stay within the context of the values of Mattan Torah. We have seen how the mitzvot of Shabbat and Honoring one's parents are intrinsically connected - both emphasize the belief in the act of Creation. In turn, they teach us to rest on the seventh day and to respect our elders as being closer to the great moment of Creation. May we all internalize these lessons and keep both mitzvot to our greatest ability which in turn will strengthen our recognition as God as the sole Creator.
1. Shemos, 20:8-11.
2. Shemos, 20:12.
3. Vayikra, 19:3.
4. Rashi, Vayikra, 19:3, based on the Gemara in Yevamos, 6a.
5. 'Drush' means that it is not the simple explanation of the verse, but brings out a deeper allusion of the verse. Any single verse can have multiple interpretations that do not necessarily contradict eachother, rather they are said on different levels.
6. See Kli Yakar who offers a slightly different explanation. One may still ask that Rav Kamenetsky's explanation seems to obligate honoring all members of elder generations, but does not specifically address the extra obligations with regard to our parents. See Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvo 33 and Mesech Chachma, Vaikra, 19:2 who deal with this issue.
7. Such as the Chassidic movement and the Mussar movement. It is instructive to note that even valid movements such as these, faced very strong opposition at the time of their beginning. This ensured that these movements did not go to any extreme. Indeed, many new movements were deemed invalid because they did not sufficiently adhere to the values that were passed down since the Giving of the Torah.