The link between past and present is critical to Judaism. Without a past, we don’t have a present, and won’t have a future. Judaism exists today only because every past generation chose to absorb its predecessors’ teachings and transmit it to their successors. Had only two or three successive generations failed to transmit the tradition, Judaism would be unimaginable today.
We are the beneficiaries of our predecessors’ commitment and the benefactors of our successors’ future commitment. Our link to the past keeps our Judaism alive, our link to the future will keep our children’s Judaism alive. The link is critical; If we transmit what we absorbed, our children will know Judaism.
This explains a curious phenomenon about the Ten Commandments. We all know that the Ten Commandants were engraved on two tablets. The first tablet held the first five commandments, and the second tablet held the second set of five commandments. The first set of five includes faith in G-d, the prohibitions against idolatry and blasphemy, the observance of Shabbat and honoring our parents. The second set of five includes the prohibitions against, murder, theft, adultery, false testimony and coveting.
It is rather obvious that the first set of commandments belong to the ritual category of Judaism, and the second set of commandments belong to the interpersonal category of Judaism. Both categories are fundamental parts of the Torah and are equal expressions of G-d’s will, but they are separate categories. One governs our relationship with G-d, the other governs our relationship with each other.
This raises a question. Why is the commandment to honor our parents on the first tablet, doesn’t it belong to the second category? We know that every Jewish mother thinks her child is G-d… but if Jewish children don’t repay the favor, why is this commandment on the first tablet?
One of the many answers is that this commandment governs not only our relationship with our parents but our relationship with Judaism itself. This commandment is the imperative to accept, trust, and absorb the Jewish traditions transmitted to us by our parents. Torah can only pass from one generation to the next if we respect and honor our predecessors–our parents.
If in our minds, the words of our parents are holy because they are the transmitters of the Sinai tradition, Judaism will survive intact. If we believe that our parents know best because they are one generation closer to Sinai, we will not only absorb the tradition but improve upon the teachings that we receive. But if we believe ourselves to be smarter than our parents, equipped with better perception, deeper wisdom, and sharper acumen, we won’t accept their tradition and won’t thrive on their teachings. On the contrary, we will thrive on disproving them just to inflate our egos. And this would be the death knell of Judaism.
The commandment to honor our parents appears on the first tablet, the category that governs our relationship with G-d, because our entire relationship with G-d, hinges on accepting the tradition, which hinges, in turn, upon honoring and respecting our parents.
One might ask why we place so much emphasis on the tradition of our parents when we have a Torah scroll and thousands of explanatory commentaries and anyone who chooses, can study on their own?
The Talmud relates a fascinating story that answers this question.
In 113 BCE, Yanai I, a Maccabean king, otherwise known as Yochanan Hyrkanos, defeated the Samaritans in the north of Israel. Upon his triumph, Yanai invited the sages to a banquet. During this banquet, Elazar ben Poeera, a man the Talmud describes as scornful, cruel, and a degenerate, informed Yanai that the sages disapproved of him as a priest. Yanai claimed the dual positions of king and high priest, but the sages did not approve of his role as a priest because his lineage was defective.
When Yanai asked what should be done, Elazar advised that the sages be slaim. Repulsed, Yanai, a man of piety, cried out, “but the Torah, what will happen to it?” “The Torah,” replied Elazar, “will sit wrapped (and preserved) in a corner, available for whoever wants to study it.” Yanai consented and slay the sages.
Yanai went on to abandon his pious ways and joined ranks with the Sadducees; repenting only on his deathbed. The Talmud observes that his negative spiritual shift occurred at this critical moment. In his rage, Yanai made a vital mistake which led to his spiritual ruination. Had he kept his wits about him, he would have replied that this is perhaps true of the written Torah, but what of the Oral tradition?
This story illustrates that even though the commandments are well preserved and available for anyone to study, Judaism cannot be learned from a book. A living Judaism can only be conveyed by a living link–a parent and teacher. We might be able to learn the what and how of Judaism from a book, but we can never learn the life of Judaism from a book. Without a teacher, the link to Jewish life is severed.
Love for Judaism is not inculcated by learning how to do it, but by observing our parents doing it. Watching our parents lovingly prepare for Shabbat, seeing them make the sacrifice of eating only kosher foods, and doing so with joy, following the reverence with which they utter their prayers, inculcates a love for Judaism and a sense of belonging in us. That is our link to true Jewish life.
When our parents teach us about the privilege of being a Jew, G-d’s chosen nation, when they speak with humble pride about preserving the Sinai mandate, when they demonstrate the lengths to which they would go for Jewish tradition, when they show us by living example, how critical it is to marry Jewishly, we end up loving Judaism too. We end up giving our children, what our parents gave us–a Jewish mother.
We end up serving our children as our parents served us–as a living link to a living Judaism.