A co-worker just stopped by my office to chat. We were talking about a discussion I had last week with a friend regarding the difference between Israelis and Americans. My friend and I agreed that, generally speaking, the Israelis are on one hand abjectly poor at following orders but on the other hand have unparalleled creativity. My co-worker suggested that this is the reason why so many of our company’s joint ventures with companies from overseas work so well: we Israelis provide the creative energy and they keep us out of trouble. Our conversation could not have been timed better as it fits in seamlessly with this week’s Torah reading.
Parashat Kedoshim begins with an order to [Vayikra 19:2] “Be holy!” The rest of the parasha is an array of commandments that guide us toward that noble goal. Much ink has been spilled trying to discern order in the list of commandments. The first two seem completely unrelated [Vayikra 19:3]: “You shall each revere his mother and his father and observe My Sabbaths: I am your G-d”. Rashi, the master medieval commentator who lived in France in the eleventh century, connects the two commandments: “Scripture places the commandment of observing the Shabbat immediately after that of fearing one’s father in order to suggest the following: Although I admonish you regarding the reverence due to your father, yet if he bids you: ‘Desecrate the Shabbat, do not listen to him because both you and your father are equally bound to honour Me”. In other words, while honouring one’s parents may be paramount, G-d comes first. A few questions must be asked: Why would we think that our parents would overrule G-d? Why should any human outrank G-d? And why is the “G-d comes first” lesson taught specifically with Shabbat? Why doesn’t the Torah combine the commandment to honour one’s parents with, say, the commandment not to eat milk and meat in order to suggest the following: Although I admonish you regarding the fear due to your father, yet if he bids you: ‘Come take a bite of this juicy cheeseburger’, do not listen to him because both you and your father are equally bound to honour Me?
Rabbi Natan Lazarovitch, who lived in Moreshet until his death a little more than one year ago, suggests that the answer has to do with the type of actions that are forbidden on Shabbat. Thirty-nine different categories of “labour” are forbidden. The type of labour that is forbidden on Shabbat has nothing to do with the amount of effort that goes into it. Rather, only labour that demonstrates man’s mastery over nature is forbidden. Our Sages call this kind of labour “Melechet Machashevet”, literally “creative labour”. To qualify as “creative labour”, an action must have a purpose, be positive, intentional and inevitable. Rav Natan suggests that with all prohibitions other than Shabbat, it is obvious that G-d trumps one’s parents. Nevertheless, one might have creatively suggested that on Shabbat, where only “creative labour” is prohibited, perhaps it is permitted to one obey one’s parents as long as the intent is not to perform creative labour. Scripture comes to prevent this.
I would like to add to Rav Natan’s explanation, but first we require some background. The Torah commands us to honour our parents in two separate locations. One location is the verse in Parashat Kedoshim and the other location is in the Ten Commandments [Shemot 20:11] “Honour your father and your mother”. Notice that the verse in Parashat Kedoshim mentions “reverence” – “Yir’a” – while the verse in the Ten Commandments mentions “honour” – “Kavod”. The Talmud in Tractate Kiddushin [31b] differentiates between reverence and honour: “What is fear and what is honour? Fear of one’s father includes the following: One may not stand in his father’s fixed place, and may not sit in his place, and may not contradict his statements by expressing an opinion contrary to that of his father, and he may not choose sides when his father argues with someone else. What is considered honour? He gives his father food and drink, dresses and covers him, and brings him in and takes him out for all his household needs.” Honouring one’s parents requires positive action while revering one’s parents requires inaction.
A similar division between action and inaction can be found regarding the laws of Shabbat. The commandment to observe the Shabbat appears in the Ten Commandments in the Book of Shemot [20:8] as “Remember the Shabbat day and keep it holy” and in the recap of the Ten Commandments in the Book of Devarim [5:12] as “Observe the Shabbat day and keep it holy”. The Talmud in Tractate Pesachim [110a] teaches that the commandment to “remember” the Shabbat involves actively sanctifying the Shabbat when it begins – via the Kiddush ceremony – and when it exits – via the Havdalah ceremony. The commandment to “observe” the Shabbat manifests itself in prohibiting the thirty-nine categories of creative labour. Keeping the Shabbat requires positive action while observing the Shabbat requires inaction.
Now here is where things get interesting. Notice that the commandment to “revere” one’s parents in Parashat Kedoshim is immediately followed by the commandment to “observe” the Shabbat. In the Ten Commandments, however, the commandment to “remember” the Shabbat is immediately followed by the commandment to “honour” one’s parents. That is to say, the commandments requiring positive action – honouring and remembering – are grouped together the same way that the commandments requiring inaction – revering and observing – are grouped together. There is one difference: regarding positive action, the commandment regarding Shabbat precedes the commandment regarding one’s parents while regarding inaction, it is the other way around. What would Rav Natan have to say about this?
Here is what I think he would say: Judaism is a religion of action but it is also a religion of boundaries. Indeed, according to most of the medieval commenters, the commandment to “be holy” as it appears in Parashat Kedoshim means to set boundaries. Within those boundaries, we are given a large amount of freedom of religious expression but under no conditions may we cross those boundaries. Regarding positive action, be it remembering the Shabbat or be it honouring one’s parents, the more action the merrier. The Torah encourages creativity. Add as much singing and dancing into the Shabbat prayers as you want. Take out the best wine for Kiddush. Bring in Shabbat an hour early and take it out three hours late to savour it as much as you can. Similarly, we should strive to honour our parents as much as we can. This is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic in which we find ourselves, where many of our parents have been isolated from the rest of their families for more than a month. We should call our parents regularly, buy their groceries, and visit them – from a distance and with proper protection. But when it comes to inaction, the Torah is very clear: rules are rules and there is a penalty to be paid for breaking them. There is no room for creativity when it comes to crossing boundaries. In the beginning of Parashat Acharei Mot, we read about Nadav and Avihu, two of Aharon’s sons, who are killed when they entered the Holy of Holies carrying incense that they were not commanded to bring. Their creativity directly and irreversibly led them to their deaths.
The tension between creativity and obedience is woven into the fabric of Judaism. The allowance for creativity is an affirmation of the greatness of the Jewish People while the requirement for obedience is a constant reminder that there is nothing greater than G-d.
Shabbat Shalom and stay healthy.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and David ben Chaya.
 Rav Natan’s wife, Shoshana, published a small book of “scribbles” that Rav Natan left lying around. They are worth their weight in gold.
 See Shemot [35:33] which serves as the source for this concept.
 The words “fear” and “reverence” are used here interchangeably.
 Both ceremonies must be performed over a cup of wine or similar.
 This is only true in the first edition of the Ten Commandments.
 One might suggest that as “Pikuach Nefesh” – the saving of a human life – temporarily waives all but three of the prohibitions in the Torah, this means that the boundaries are not always uncrossable. I suggest that “Pikuach Nefesh” redefines the boundaries, which remain, as always, uncrossable.