Are All Men Created Equal?
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16-20 )
A healthy society needs boundaries and limits.
At Mount Sinai, God described the Jewish People as a holy nation (Shemot 19:6). But it sounds too difficult and lofty a concept for us to handle. How do we attain holiness? A Torah portion with the name "Kedoshim," which means "holy," should logically be an address for us to discover a path toward holiness.
"You shall be holy since I, God, Your Lord, am holy. Every man should revere his mother and his father and you should observe my Sabbaths. I am God, your Lord" (Leviticus 19:2-3).
God gives us a general command to be holy and then continues to list 50 or so commandments seemingly in order to achieve this goal. God is telling us that living holy lives entails following the dictates of the Torah's commandments. The first of these commands is to revere parents. It would appear then that the first step in a path toward holiness would be to appreciate and respect those who brought us into the world.
If we are to begin to live a holy life, we must realize that we owe people of authority proper and honorable treatment. Only then will we get used to the idea of accepting authority. This will allow us to relate to God as our Ultimate Authority, by living a holy life according to His instructions for Living, the Torah.
In a sense, Thomas Jefferson's famous "defining of America" phrase, "All men are created equal," is not entirely accurate. While all Jefferson intended to state was that all people should be treated fairly with human rights (which is true), the statement itself has connotations which cannot be accepted. There are certain people who deserve more respect and authority than others. Society needs to know that there are boundaries and limits. We need to give our seat on the bus to an older person out of respect. We need to stand up for sages, elders, and even parents as they enter the room.
If "everyone is equal," then we run the risk of making no one equal. We will produce youngsters who laugh at the elderly and disobey their teachers and principals because they will feel "equal" with authority figures. If "everyone is equal," we will lose respect for others since we are as equal as they. We will only be concerned with our own selves which will inevitably make it impossible to attain holiness. Holiness means refraining from indulgences and one cannot do that if he is self-centered.
Through revering parents, we learn to have a sense of awe. The Sefer HaChinuch (Book of Education-Mitzvah 33) writes that once a person integrates respect for his parents into his personality, this attitude will serve as a springboard for revering God. And when we revere God, we listen to Him. When we listen to Him, we follow His Torah, which makes us holy.
This concept also applies to honoring kings. There is a commandment to give respect to Jewish and non-Jewish kings (see Talmud Brachot 19b) and this way of relating to kings also helps us in relating to God. God is called "The King of all kings," which means in order to treat Him properly we have to know how to honor a king. Only then, will we able to show respect to the King of all kings. To the extent that we no longer have monarchies and powerful kings in the world, we have a more difficult time than previous generations relating to God as King.
So how can we become holy? The path is in the verse quoted above:
"You shall be holy since I, God, Your Lord, am holy. Every man should revere his mother and his father and you should observe my Sabbaths. I am God, your Lord." (Leviticus 19:2-3)
First, revere your parents, then you will able to revere Me and My Sabbaths.
A shining illustration of such reverence is the following story told about Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin, the famed Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, circa 1900.
While moving to a new apartment, he personally supervised the movers. His eyes were glued upon two large crates filled with many manuscripts. The mover piled the boxes one on top of the other. Rabbi Diskin pleaded with the mover, "Please be sure not to reverse the order of the crates. Be careful that the top one remains on top and the bottom one stays at the bottom."
The mover assured Rabbi Diskin that he would. Several times throughout the move, Rabbi Diskin repeated his plea. The mover finally lost patience and asked the Rabbi, "What would be so horrible if the boxes got switched?"
Rabbi Diskin explained, "The top crate contains the Torah writings of my late father while the bottom one has mine. It would be improper for even a moment that my writings should be on top of my father's!"
There is another insight in this verse that enables us to begin to have proper reverence for parents. If I live a holy life, then I appreciate living more than if I am a mundane person. If all that is important to me is the tennis court and trips to the Bahamas, then my parents cannot mean all that much to me. I owe them my existence but my existence is not so monumental so I don't have such great appreciation for what my parents did in giving me life. But a life that is sanctified and has profound meaning is a life that owes parents reverence and endless respect. I appreciate existence because I truly have a valuable and holy purpose in the world. I therefore appreciate the life that my parents gave to me and respond with meaningful awe, respect, and reverence.
So the verse states, be holy, and only then will you be able to revere parents. And when you revere parents, you will then be able to respect God by observing His Sabbaths and revering Him.
We should treat all people as equals in terms of dignity, kindness, and generosity. But we must realize that it is not for everything that all men are created equal.