I PLEAD THE FIFTH
Rabbi David Walk
Let's play free association. What's your first impression when you hear the word 'fifth?' For those who watch TV crime shows, criminals and those testifying before Congressional committees it's a reference to an amendment in the Bill of Rights. For tipplers it's a bottle size (originally 25 3/5 oz., but now usually 750 ml). For bloggers it's the fifth estate, their maverick media society. For music lovers it's a Beethoven symphony. To little kids it's a grade. For high performance car drivers it's a gear. For New Yorkers it's a fancy address; to my family it's a more plebian street where we live. But this week it is the pivotal mitzvah in the Ten Commandments.
To many commentaries the most important commandments are the first two. According to a famous Midrash these were the only ones actually heard by the Jews. The others, along with the rest of our mitzvoth, were transmitted by Moshe. This position becomes a philosophic concept. If we only heard these two from God then they must be the necessary basis for the entire mitzvah agenda. And it's explained that way. The first commandment, I am the Lord your God, represents the premise that we must obey the instructions of our Creator, therefore it's the prototype for all positive mitzvoth. The second commandment, You shall have no other gods before Me, is the foundation for all negative commandments. If we are doing something proscribed by God, we must be demonstrating loyalty to another force. So, some believe, that all one has to do is to hear these two precepts and all the rest fall into their proper place.
However, I'd like to suggest that the most important of the Ten Commandments is the Fifth. Before I develop this further, I want to present a famous idea that I'm sure many of you are aware of. The arrangement of the Ten Commandments is significant. The tradition, which most synagogue and temple representations follow, is that the first five commandments were on the first tablet and the other five were engraved on the second. Our Sages teach that this arrangement was noteworthy because the number words on tablet one was far greater than the total on tablet two. So, the arrangement wasn't for balance or aesthetics, but, rather, to teach an important idea. The generally accepted conclusion is that the first five commandments are those between God and humanity, while the last five are between humans. The problem is that honoring parents is on the first column, and when last checked, parents are also human. So, we must explain that phenomenon.
Our Sages teach that we compare the respect for our parents with the respect for God (Kiddushin 30b). Generally, we assume that our honor for God is based upon the fact that God created us, and therefore we owe this level of awe. The Talmud reinforces this concept by telling us that there are three partners in the creation of a human. And the rabbis conclude that when a child honors his parent, God considers it as if the Divine spirit dwelt among them and that they together honor God. This honor and respect must be essential because this is the only of the Ten Commandments which includes a reward. The verse specifies: in order that your days be lengthened on the land that the Lord, your God, is giving you (Exodus 20:12). Why should one live longer because one has honored parents? I think that there's a reasonable response to that question. If children see that their parent demonstrates respect for the previous generation, they will eventually model that behavior. And people live longer when cared for by others. There are other answers to this query, like it carries a reward because it's so hard or God rewards this act because of Divine appreciation for this sharing of Godly glory, but I believe that the first answer is the best.
But wait! Is it true that we honor and revere God because of the act of creating us? Maybe, but that's not what it says in the Ten Commandments. If you look back at the first commandment, you'll notice that God requires us to believe in the Deity not because of the creation of heaven, earth and us, but because God took us out of Egypt and out of the house of bondage. Our relationship with God is not based upon God as the Creator, but is predicated upon the fact that God is our Redeemer. The Jewish connection to God is much deeper than the general link to God, because the rest of humanity knows God as the Creator (Hashgacha clalit, General supervision of nature), while we bond to God because of God's involvement in history and willingness to suspend the natural order of things (Hashgacha pratit, Individualized supervision).
So, too, Jewish children should respect their parents, not because of the accident of birth, but because Jewish parents must guide their children towards superior spiritual attainments, towards a redemptive state. Well, I didn't see this coming. The respect discussed in the Ten Commandments isn't automatic. It's based upon redemptive rearing techniques. Putting this mitzvah on the first tablet doesn't put extra responsibility on the child. All the Commandments regardless of placement require great effort on the part of the practitioner. It puts an extra burden on the parent to be worthy of that respect which is appropriate to God. Getting onto the God tablet affects the parent more than the child.
As a parent, I may require a fifth (take your pick of allusions) with this conclusion. Partnering with God in the creation of a child includes much more than contributing DNA or establishing which teams the kid roots for (even though that's important). It's a commitment to give the child those things beyond nature. It's more than food and shelter. It's guidance to be more than the other biological creatures around us. It's providing purpose; it's furnishing fortitude; it's bestowing blessing. Then I've partnered with God, and earned a place on the first tablet.
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