Mitzvah vs. Mitzvah

Aharei Mot Kedoshim By :  Joshua Heller Posted On May 5, 2001 / 5761 | Torah Commentary

Sometimes in the Biblical text, the first half and second half of a verse seem to be talking past each other. The first half addresses one commandment or concept, and the second half seems to go off on a tangent. This strange type of juxtaposition appears a number of times in K’doshim , the second half of our double portion for the week.

One classic example is Leviticus 19:3: “A man shall fear his mother and father, and observe my sabbaths, I am the Lord your God.” Some commentators suggest that each of the three phrases of this verse can be seen as a separate commandment; to obey one’s parents, observe the Shabbat, and to acknowledge God. Were there too many commandments (over 50) crammed into this week’s parasha for each one to get its own verse?

Our sages felt that there is nothing arbitrary in the Biblical text, and that these concepts were brought together for a reason, one which resonates powerfully in our own generation. Rashi, commenting on 19:3 and basing himself on the Talmud, explains that these two values, observance of Shabbat and respect for parents, may come into conflict, and this verse explains which is to take priority. “If your father should tell you to violate the Shabbat, do not listen to him, and so too with the other commandments.”

One could imagine reasons why each commandment might take precedence. For instance, later in the same chapter (19:30), there is another juxtaposition of apparently unrelated concepts: “Observe my Sabbaths and fear my Sanctuary, I am the Lord.” It is almost universally agreed by the rabbis that in that verse, the Sabbath comes first to show that it takes precedence even over the building of the sanctuary. Indeed, the 39 categories of creative work which are prohibited on Shabbat are precisely those types of work which were performed in building the Mishkan, the first, portable Temple, and that work was suspended during Shabbat. If we were to take the literary structure of this verse as our model, saying that the first item mentioned takes precedence, we would have to read our own verse, in which parents are mentioned first, to say that honor of parents must take priority.

Legal theory can bring us to either side of this equation, as well. Shabbat is both a positive (do this!) and negative (don’t do that!) commandment, while respect for one’s parents is a positive commandment only. In theory, when faced with a positive commandment and a commandment which has both positive and negative components, one follows the one which has both, so Shabbat would take priority. And yet, even in the case of Shabbat, there are exceptions to this rule based on scriptural verses. So, for instance, a circumcision is held on the eighth day, even if it is Shabbat, and even though the sanctuary could not be constructed on Shabbat, required sacrifices still took place there on the Sabbath.

The Talmud (Bava Metzia 32b), recognizes that there is a psychological aspect to this conflict as well. Fear and honor of parents is related to the fear of God, and God is often referred to as a parent. Whether out of fear or love, one might conclude that it is more important to obey one’s parent on earth than one’s Parent in heaven. Hence the third part of the verse, “I am the Lord your God,” reminding the child that “while you are obligated to your parents, both you and your parents have a greater obligation to God.”

This conflict, which may have been expressed theoretically for the sages, is a very real one in Jewish families everywhere. The conventional wisdom is that levels of observance and education decline with each generation of exposure to the homogenizing influences of a secular society, that children know less, and do less than their parents. But across the spectrum of Jewish life, there are pockets where the pendulum is swinging another way. In our own movement, day schools, USY, Ramah camps, and study in Israel have created an increasing trend of young people who are embracing types of religious study and observance that their parents and grandparents had drifted away from or rejected outright. As a friend of mine puts it: “My grandfather threw his tefillin overboard on the boat over from Europe. On the flight over to Israel, I must have caught them.”

The result of this change is that sometimes members of a family, like the two halves of this verse, seem to be talking past each other. Children can’t understand why their parents, who always valued their own Jewish identity, aren’t ecstatic about this new expression of love for Judaism. Parents who drove to synagogue every Friday night and valued a family Shabbat dinner with kiddush, motzi and matzoh balls can’t understand why their children suddenly won’t ride to synagogue and complain about the ranch dressing next to the chicken. Furthermore, the issues do not resolve themselves when children move out and create families of their own. The verse itself uses the term “ish“, implying that the concern is just as real for an adult, as it is for a child who lives under the parental roof.

The resolution to this type of conflict is rarely straightforward. Sometimes, parents are set in their ways, and children confuse righteousness with self-righteousness. Yet another two-part verse in the parasha(19:17) helps provide an answer. “Do not hate your brother in your heart; you shall surely reprove him and not bear his sin.” It is very easy to apply only the second half of the verse and criticize another’s behavior. It is far more difficult to obey the first half and search one’s heart to ensure that that criticism is not tainted with unexpressed disdain or rebellion.

When families need to balance different levels of observance under one roof, it can only be done out of a spirit of mutual respect. In the best cases, children will remember that though God’s authority may come first, it does not replace the obligation to their parents. Parents, in turn, may recognize the sincerity of a child’s newfound observance, and perhaps even find it awakening new meanings in rituals that they had abandoned, or never even experienced, in their own childhood.