Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 2 May 2020 / 8 Iyyar 5780

Parshat Acharei Mot - Kedoshim

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Prerequisite for Sanctity

Parshat Kedoshim opens with the general directive to be “holy.” The first pillar of this sanctification is expressed in the first of many mitzvahs in this Torah portion: reverence for one’s mother and father. The essence of this reverence is obedience — subordinating one’s will to the will of the other.

Parents have a prominent place in the Torah. The command to honor them appears in the Ten Commandments. Parents convey to their children not only physical existence, but also the Jewish mission. They transmit to the next generation Jewish History and Torah. It is not the good that parents do for their children, but the mission given to the parents concerning their children that is the basis of the mitzvah of honoring them. By honoring the parents who have transmitted to us this mission, we honor G-d.

Where sanctity is the goal in Parshat Kedoshim, the mitzvah focuses on reverence instead of honor. Subordination of the child’s will to the parent’s will — nullification of the child’s will because of his parent’s will — is the first training toward self-control. Only by learning the art of self-control can a person become free of the fetters of his baser instincts, and master the impulses of his will. The imperative to become holy consists of our ability to subordinate our desires, out of our own free will, to the dictates of a higher authority. The more willing and complete this subordination, the more we approach holiness. The more mastery and self-discipline, the easier it is to do good even though our physical desires may resist, and the easier it is to avoid evil even though it tempts our senses.

A child is born with no control over these desires, the newborn’s cry means either “I want” or “I don’t want.” The infant “wants” what gives him momentary pleasure and “doesn’t want” anything that gives him discomfort. These “wants” and “don’t wants" increase in intensity with time, and these babies grow into toddlers with demands, which, when unchecked, can leave a parent at his mercy. But when a parent disciplines, he accomplishes far more than smoother home management — the parent trains a child for the task of holiness. Only by training in obedience to a higher parental authority — by learning that there is a “no” to physical desires and a “yes” despite discomfort — can a child ultimately learn the art of self-control. Hence, the imperative to revere one’s mother and father is the very first step towards holiness.

  • Source: Commentary, Vayikra 19:3

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