Dear Mom and Dad

Rabbi Wagensberg
Parshas Yisro
Dear Mom and Dad

When Steve heard the news, it felt like his stomach hit the floor. His mother, Susan, had been admitted to a hospital. She was in a coma, on a respirator in the ICU.

Although Steve was supposed to go on a business trip that day, he cancelled his flight in order to be at his mother's side and so that his father would not be left alone. Day after day, Steve sat there praying for her recovery. He also learned at her bedside so that the Torah study would serve as a merit for her healing.

Doctors and nurses admiringly looked on as Steve diligently went about his practices non-stop, even though he was surrounded by machines which bleeped constantly, amidst the sound of his mother's labored breathing.

Eventually, Susan's white blood cell count was back up to normal, and they were able to take her off the respirator. She also came out of her coma on that day. Tears welled up in Steve's eyes as he realized that this miracle occurred on his birthday. Steve looked up and thanked God for the best birthday present anybody could have given him.

From that day on, both Susan and her son celebrated their birthdays on the same day. This story is just one of many examples of honoring parents, which just so happens to be one of the subjects in this week's parsha.

One of the greatest highlights in the Torah takes place in parshas Yisro, the giving of the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. The fifth commandment is honoring parents (Ex. 20:12).

The Talmud (Kiddushin, chap. 1, "Ha-isha Niknis", pg. 30b; Pro. 3:9; Lv. 19:3; Dt. 6:13) equates honoring parents with honoring God Himself. One reason for this is that God's Name, "Ka" (spelled yud hey) dwells between the parents. The yud in the word "Ish" (man) and the hey in the word "Isha" (woman) spells "Ka", indicating that the Divine Presence abides with them (Sota, chap. 2, "Haya Meivi", pg. 17a; Rebbi Akivah).

Therefore, when one honors his parents, he is simultaneously honoring God Who resides between them. Moreover, in the verse that commands us to honor parents, there are specifically fifteen words. The number fifteen is the numerical value of God's Name "Ka", hinting that God indeed rests between the parents (Shvilei Pinchas).

The Gemara (Kiddushin, chap. 1, "Ha-isha Niknis", pg. 31a; Ulah Rabba) says that, at first, when the nations heard that God commanded us with the first two commandments (I Am Hashem your God, and there may not be any other gods before Me), they thought that God was looking out for His own honor. However, when they heard that God commanded us to honor parents, they retracted their initial thoughts and admitted to the sincerity of the other commandments (Psa. 138:4; Psa. 119:160; Rava).

This is because the nations understood that although all kings command their nations to respect other figures of authority, they reserve the greatest honor for themselves. However, when the nations saw that God equated honoring parents with His own honor, they realized that He was not looking for self-glorification (Shvilei Pinchas).

Even though the nations had no access to the Oral Teachings of the Talmud, they still realized that honoring parents is tantamount to honoring God Himself. Let us explore how the nations came to this conclusion.

On one hand, honoring parents can be perceived as a mitzvah between man and God because there are special ways of treating parents that do not apply to other people. For example, standing up for them when they walk into a room, not contradicting them, feeding, and clothing them. Since this is a Divine decree, it is considered a mitzvah between man and God.

On the other hand, since we were commanded to treat PEOPLE (i.e. parents) in this unique way, it is considered a mitzvah between man and man.

The difference between these two ways of viewing the mitzvah would be if Yom Kippur alone could atone for transgressing this commandment. If it is a mitzvah between man and God, Yom Kippur can atone for it, but, if it is a mitzvah between man and man, Yom Kippur does not atone for it until one is forgiven by the hurt party (Mishnah, Yoma, chap. 8, "Yom Hakkipurim", pg. 85b; Rebbi Elazar ben Azarya).

Although the Minchas Chinuch (mitzvah 33) leaves this question unresolved, there may be a way of proving that it is a mitzvah between man and God. This is because the Ten Commandments have been divided into two parts. The first five commandments are found on one tablet, whereas the other five commandments are found on a second tablet. Why did Hashem split the Ten Commandments into two parts?

The first five are all mitzvos between man and God. That is why the Name of God is mentioned in every single one them.

However, the second set of five commandments are all mitzvos between man and man. That is why the Name of God does not appear in any of them. Since honoring parents is found grouped with the first five, it indicates that it is a mitzvah between man and God. Therefore, God's Name is mentioned in this commandment. (Ramban, Ba'al Haturim, Kli Yakar, Ex. 20:12; Maharal, Tiferes Yisrael, chap. 36).

However, it could be that honoring parents is a combination of both (Shvilei Pinchas). This is because all opposites in this world have a medium between them which serves as a smooth transition between them. For example, between man and animal, there is a monkey. Between the Written Law and the Oral Law there are the "ksiv" and "kri" of scriptural words (the spelling of the written word and the way it is pronounced). Between the holy Shabbos and the mundane days of the week is "tosefes" Shabbos (adding to the Sabbath by bringing it in earlier) (Bnei Yisaschar, Sivan 6:2, Rebbi Pinchas from Koretz; Arizal, Eitz Chaim, 42:1).

Similarly, the mitzvah of honoring parents is the medium between the mitzvos between man and God and man and man. Honoring parents is the synthesis between the two. It has both components (Akeidas Yitzchak, Yisro, 45. Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, 1420-1494, Spain).

This explains why honoring parents was placed as the fifth commandment and not adjacent to the first commandment of honoring Hashem. Even though juxtaposing the two would support the notion that honoring parents is equal to honoring Hashem, nevertheless; by putting honoring parents as the fifth commandment, it is as much in the center of the Ten Commandments as it could be. This positioning teaches us that it bridges the gap between the two types of mitzvos (Akeidas Yitzchak).

The nations realized that since God grouped the mitzvah of honoring parents together with the mitzvos between man and God, it teaches us that it is equivalent to honoring Hashem Himself. They understood this without the Oral Tradition (Shvilei Pinchas).

Honoring parents is supposed to lead to honoring Hashem because the motivation behind honoring parents stems from gratitude for all they did by bringing the child into the world and by providing for it. How much more gratitude are we expected to have for Hashem Who gave, and continues to give us everything we have, including our parents (Sefer Hachinuch, mitzvah 33. It is a book listing the 613 mitzvos, printed anonymously in Spain in the 13th century. It was written by a father for his son as a present to him on becoming a bar mitzvah).

This gratitude for Hashem breeds closeness (dveikus) to Him which is the purpose of all the mitzvos (Makkos, chap. 3, "Eilu Hen Halokin", pgs. 23b-24a; Dt. 33:4; Hab. 2:4; Maharal, Chiddushei aggados, Tiferes Yisrael chap. 55; Toldos Ya'akov Yosef, Gn. 8). God does not need to be honored, praised, and revered. But, when we honor, praise, and revere Him, we become more refined people by becoming more grateful. This is what being a mentch is about.

Practically speaking, let us try to honor our parents a little bit more. If they are still alive, stand up for them, run to serve them, and don't contradict them. All the while, think about how indebted we are to them, and think about how much more indebted we are to our Parent in Heaven.

How can we honor parents who have already passed on? In my opinion, the greatest way of honoring them is by becoming the biggest mentsch we can be. Part of being a mentch is to be a person who is thankful and expresses gratitude. Hashem says to parents of such a person, "That's your child? You brought such a tzaddik into the world? You raised such a refined person?" That gives parents the greatest nachas of all.

So, may we all be blessed with even greater feelings of gratitude towards our parents, towards each other, and towards Hashem, so that we are motivated to keep the Ten Commandments with all of the 613 mitzvos that are contained in them, making a Kiddush Hashem even amongst the nations, and thereby position this world on its primary pillar, dveikus ba'Hashem.