The celebration of Mother’s Day, of honoring the mother of the family, is a universal value which should be shared by Jews and non-Jews alike. And yet, the daily mitzvah of honoring our parents is a specifically Jewish mitzvah. There are seven Noahide laws and ten commandments. As Rabbi Ari Kahn has aptly pointed out, each of the ten commandments can relate to at least one of the seven Noahide laws with the exception of two commandments: honoring parents and observing Shabbat. What’s fascinating is that these two mitzvot have universal value, to express gratitude to our parents and to take a break from work. And yet, these are distinctly Jewish mitzvot. Furthermore, these two mitzvot are the first two mitzvot recorded after the commandment of “Kedoshim tihyu,” of living a holy life, a life of transcendence in this world.
Perhaps the goal of the seven Noahide laws is to ensure a functioning, law abiding society and perhaps the prohibition of idolatry as one of these mitzvot reflects the idea that belief in one God creates a sense of accountability for our behavior, that there is someone who is always watching us who holds us responsible. The truth is that the modern world can survive on some level with the seven Noahide laws. We can function as a just and moral society constantly looking forward, constantly looking to achieve greater progress and constantly trying to innovate. This is essentially the personality of Adam I from Rav Soloveitchik’s Lonely Man of Faith. But Rav Soloveitchik also described Adam II, who doesn’t try to conquer his surroundings like Adam I. Adam II simply wants to encounter his surroundings and reflect on his surroundings and ultimately reflect on his purpose in the world and on God. This, I believe, is kedusha. This is holiness. We live sanctified lives when we stop and look backwards and reflect on the past.
It is true that if all we want to do is conquer the world, move forward and innovate, then we might need to take a break once in a while to rest. But in this instance the rest has no inherent value other than providing us with the opportunity to be refreshed. However, Shabbat, a day of rest, which on the surface seems to be a universal concept, involves much more than taking a break. Shabbat has intrinsic value. It is a time to stop and reflect on this world and what our purpose is. It is a time for Adam II. Even the mitzva to respect parents is more than simply a thank you. Saying thank you to our parents and getting our mother breakfast in bed for Mother’s Day with a card reflects the universal concept of respecting parents. However, there is something uniquely Jewish about respecting parents. After all, this commandment is on the “bein adam lamakom” side of the ten commandments. There is something uniquely divine about this mitzva.
There is a famous story told that on a trip to Israel, a well-known “enlightened” individual was seated near Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky, zt”l. Impressed by the honor given to Rav Yaakov by his grandchildren, as they came to check on him many times throughout the trip, this man exclaimed, “Why do your grandchildren treat you with such respect while my grandchildren treat me like an old man – a has been?” Rav Yaakov responded, “You believe that the Darwin theory of evolution has validity. You believe that our ancestors were apes; the older the individual, the closer he is to the beginning of man- or to the ape. We believe that our ancestors were the holiest of holies; therefore, the older the individual, the closer he is to the source of holiness and the greater he is. Our grandchildren respect our traditions because they know it was transmitted from father to son from Sinai.”
The Meshech Chochmah explains that honoring our parents connects us to our mesorah, to our past, to the revelation at Sinai. When we honor our parents, we are doing more than saying thank you. We recognize the framework of our past, of experiences and values transmitted by our parents, all the way back to Sinai. Furthermore, Rav Soloveitchik has written that man can only find God if he is also sensitive to his roots in this world. Connecting with parents is connecting with our roots and sets the stage for ultimately connecting to God, and this is kedusha.
Kedusha is about stopping, reflecting and looking backwards, and that is something uniquely Jewish. In today’s modern world when we all want is to get ahead and move forward and be an Adam I, let us try harder to make the most of Shabbat as a day that is more than simply a break, as a day with intrinsic value, as a day of reflection. As the world celebrates Mother’s Day today, let us express gratitude to our mothers. But let us do more than that. Whether our mother is alive or not, let us think about how she gave of herself, her values and her experiences to shape who we are today and let us then think about the generations of mothers who did that all the way back to Sinai. Instead of constantly running, this Mother’s Day let us take time to be an Adam II, which is the first step to live lives of kedusha.