Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 13 March 2021 / 29 Adar 5781

To Believe Is to Behave (Part 2)

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
Become a Supporter Library Library

To Believe Is to Behave (Part 2)
(Lailah Gifty Akita)

“These are the precepts whose fruits a person enjoys in this world, but whose principal remains intact in the World to Come. They are: honoring one’s parents; acts of kindness; early arrival at the study hall in the morning and the evening; hosting guests; visiting the sick; providing the wherewithal for a bride to marry; escorting the dead; praying with concentration; making peace between two people; and Torah study is the equivalent of them all.” (Tractate Shabbat 127a)

The first mitzvah on this list is honoring parents. There is a fascinating narrative in the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 8:4), which describes how, when G-d began to give the Ten Commandments to the Jewish nation at Mount Sinai, the monarchs of the other nations of the world were not impressed. After hearing each of the first four commandments, they rationalized that any sovereign would put in place such directives since they are directives that emphasize the absolute authority of the ruler. But, on hearing the fifth commandment — honoring parents — they all stood up and praised G-d, admitting that when a human king is crowned, he immediately denies his parents. He thinks that his parents are a distraction and detraction from the offspring’s royal dignity. However, G-d commands for everyone to honor their parents. The commentaries explain that the kings of the other nations understood, “retroactively,” that the first four commandments were not given to honor G-d, but rather to benefit mankind.

In his explanation of the mitzvah, Sefer HaChinuch writes the reason behind this mitzvah is to emphasize the trait of acknowledging any kindnesses done to a person — what is called in Hebrew makir tovah — and to instruct us to reciprocate in kind. The author continues, “A person should not act as if he never received anything from his fellow man, as such an attitude is disgusting before G-d and before man. His father and mother brought him into the world. From when he was a child, they toiled to raise him. He should always remember this and truly honor them in every way possible.”

Interestingly enough, the Jerusalem Talmud (Peah 1:1) describes the mitzvah of honoring parents as being both one of the most exalted mitzvahs and, at the same time, one of the most difficult mitzvahs to fulfill perfectly. In fact, it is so lofty that in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin 30b, our Sages describe honoring parents as being akin to honoring G-d Himself. By honoring our parents we are attaching ourselves to the long and glorious chain stretching all the way back to the Giving of the Torah. The mitzvah is so great in scope that Rabbi Simcha Bunim Alter (1898-1992), known as the Lev Simchah and who was the sixth Rebbe of Gur, taught that every person is born with a specific allocation of days and years from Heaven that dictate how long they he will live in this world. However, the amount of time that one devotes to fulfilling the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents is not part of the Divine calculation. In effect, honoring parents is the source of “extra life,” because it is not part of the original reckoning!

Rabbi Meir Simcha HaKohen of Dvinsk (1843-1926), one of the most brilliant and prominent leaders of Ashkenazic Jewry between the two World Wars, points out in his timeless commentary Meshech Chochmah on the Torah that the Holy Temple was built on the portion of land belonging to Binyamin. (Each Tribe was assigned a specific portion in the Land of Israel with the exception of Levi.) Why was the Tribe of Binyamin chosen to be the recipient of such an honor? Binyamin was the only brother who was not involved in selling Yosef into slavery. Binyamin was the only one of the brothers who did not cause his father grief. Therefore, in Divine acknowledgement, the Holy Temple — a place of peace — was built in his portion.

Rabbi Shimon Schwab, in his epic work Ma’ayan Beit HaShoeva, explains that the reward that one receives in this world for fulfilling the mitzvah is not physical. Rather, it is a spiritual reward. This means that each of us must work on our awareness that we are attaching ourselves to G-d by performing the mitzvah of honoring our parents — and that by doing so we can reach a sense of tranquility that will carry us through the more difficult times as well.

The Talmud (Tractate Berachot 17a) describes the behavior of students studying Torah taking leave of each other before returning home. They would bless each other with a beautiful but somewhat enigmatic blessing. They would say, “May you see your world in your lifetime.” According to the Rabbis, the simple understanding of the blessing is that all of a person’s needs should be met here in this world.

However, the Baal Shem Tov had a different explanation of this blessing. He was an 18th century mystic who introduced a revolutionary approach to keeping the Torah and worshiping G-d, called Chassidut, which was a synthesizing of the spiritual and the physical realms in a way that enabled every Jew to do the will of G-d through warmth and love. The Baal Shem Tov explained the meaning of the blessing as follows: “May you see your future world (i.e. the World to Come) in your lifetime.” When one serves G-d with purity and intent, it is possible to experience the tranquility and the intense clarity that is normally reserved only for the World to Come.

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