Thursday, February 6, 2020

Yitro: Honoring Parents--and the Earth

At the heart of this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, God gives us the Torah on Mount Sinai.  At the core of that revelation is aseret ha-dibrot, the Ten Commandments (or in Hebrew, “utterances.”)  And at the very center of those foundational laws we find the commandment:
Honor your father and your mother, that you may long endure on the land that the Holy One, your God is giving you

Our Sages saw the fifth commandment as a kind of bridge between the two tablets.  They categorize the first four utterances as bein adam la-Makom—principles that apply “between humanity and God”: the affirmation of God’s existence, the prohibition of idolatry, the injunction to refrain from taking God’s name in vain, and the commandment to observe Shabbat.  The final five utterances, by contrast, they categorize as bein adam le-chavero—principles governing the way we treat one another: prohibitions on murder, adultery, theft, false witness, and covetousness.  But the fifth utterance falls somewhere in the middle.  Honoring parents would seem to belong with the laws around human interaction, yet it is grouped with the mitzvot around our relationships with God.  The Rabbis suggest that parents act as God’s partners in creating life.  We are obligated to respect our parents in this capacity.  Even when they fail dismally in raising (or failing to raise) us, we still owe them a debt of gratitude for bringing us into existence, together with the Holy One.

In his book The Way into Judaism and the Environment, Jeremy Benstein suggests that we need a new category of mitzvot—bein adam le-olam—for those moral and ethical obligations we have toward the Earth and the rest of God’s creation.  He asks: “Where is the consciousness that we have a larger task, a mission for humanity regarding the world?  Given the global challenges facing us, we need a framework, a guiding vision, a purpose.”

Perhaps the Torah itself suggests such a category in the way the fifth commandment links honoring parents with the promise of a long life on the land that God gives us.  We tend to associate environmental repair with children, rather than parents; many ecological exhortations urge us to tend to the earth for the sake of those who will inherit it.  This seems natural—and yet it has not (yet) proven to be a very effective formula.  We have, for the most part, been irresponsible when it comes to living sustainably in order to leave our descendants with a better world.

Torah offers us a different path.  If our relationship with the land depends upon respecting our parents, then that bond between us and the earth is best built through gratitude rather than guilt.  We should honor the rest of God’s creation for the same reason that we should honor even bad parents: for giving us the ongoing gift of life itself.  If we are truly thankful for the planet that sustains us, we will act in a manner that allows future generations to express that same gratitude.

This is our challenge.

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