Let’s Be Holy


Rabbi Reuven Mann

Young Israel of Phoenix

This week’s Torah portion consists of two Torah Parshas, Achrei Mot and Kedoshim.  The latter commences with the commandment to “Be Holy.”  Virtually all religions embrace and promote this ideal.  However, the meaning of this term is unclear.  People may feel that something or someone is “holy” but have difficulty explaining what it is that makes it so.  All the Mitzvot of the Torah are clearly elucidated.  We need to know the meaning of this term in order to fulfill the command.  The question arises, what does the Torah mean when it instructs us to “Be Holy.”

I believe that the answer can be found in the verse that follows the command.  It says,  “A man shall fear his mother and father and keep My Sabbaths.” This is a tantalizing statement and raises some questions.  First of all, what is the connection between fearing one’s parents and observing Shabbat?  In addition, we can’t help but note that the mother is mentioned before the father.  This is strange because the Torah obligates us not only to fear but also to honor our parents.  This is an entirely separate Mitzvah that is spelled out in the Ten Commandments.  The fifth one states, “Honor your father and mother so that your days will be prolonged in the land that Hashem your G-d gives you.”  The commentators note that in this case the father is listed before the mother.  Why, when speaking about fear is the mother cited first while in the matter of honor, the father is mentioned first?

The Rabbis elucidate this issue with a profound psychological insight.  In general terms the father is the disciplinarian while the mother provides nurture and love.  It is, therefore, natural for the child to feel certain resentment against the parent who restricts his desires and instinctively love the one who nourishes and supports him.  The natural disposition of the child is to honor the mother and fear the father.  Therefore, when speaking of honor, it was necessary to put the emphasis on the father.  When mentioning fear, however, the need was to highlight the mother by listing her first.

The objective of the Torah is not merely to get us to observe the rules.  The goal is to perfect our nature by acting according to true values regardless of how we feel.  A perfected person does not base his morality on that which is pleasing to his emotions. Very often in life there are conflicts between our feelings and what we know to be right.  Holiness consists of the ability to function according to the truth even when one has powerful emotions to the contrary.  Thus, a child who displays honor to his father and fear to his mother is acting according to the principle of holiness.

We can now understand why the verse concludes with, “and keep My Sabbaths.” The Rabbis teach that this comes to limit the authority of parents.  If they ask you to do something that is permitted by Torah you must respect them. However, if they instruct you to do something, which violates Shabbat or any other Mitzvah, you must disobey them and listen to Hashem.  Thus, the injunction to honor one’s parents should not stem from a feeling of submissiveness to “parental figures.”  One should recognize that the ultimate source of authority is the Creator.  He endowed the parents with “power” to enable them to raise children according to the Mitzvot and ideals of Torah.  When they violate the “terms” of their authority the child must have the courage to push his feelings aside and honor his Creator.  That is the mark of a truly holy person.

Shabbat Shalom