Two Parts, One Whole – Rav David Milston
Towards the end of Parashat Noach, Rashi summarizes the two main events of the parasha, the Flood and Migdal Bavel, and reaches a seemingly obvious conclusion:
“…Whose transgression was more serious, the generation of the Flood or the generation of Migdal Bavel? The former did not act against God, while the latter did stretch out their hands against the Almighty to wage war against Him; yet the Flood drowned the former whilst the latter did not perish from the world. The people during the generation of the Flood were robbers and they were always quarrelling, and therefore they were destroyed, whereas the generation of Bavel used to conduct themselves with love and friendship, as it says, ‘of one language and common words.’ From this we learn that dissension is despised and peace is great.” (Bereishit, 11:9)
This Rashi has a very similar theme to a famous midrash in Vayikra Rabbah (26:2.)
The midrash is perplexed by a historical reality that comes to light when comparing the generation of King David with that of King Ahab:
“Rabbi Yossi of Milchiya and Rabbi Yehoshua of Sichnin commented in the name of Rabbi Levi: We have found that people were so learned in their Torah learning at the time of David that even young children were known to be experts in the field of tumah and taharah (purity and impurity)… Yet even so, when David’s soldiers went out to battle they incurred heavy casualties. In stark contrast, the generation of Ahab was all idolatrous, but they suffered relatively few casualties when they went out to battle.”
In its attempt to answer this paradox, the midrash suggests that even though the generation of David was known for its diligence in Torah study, social behavior left much to be desired. This can be clearly illustrated by numerous instances of people informing the authorities of David’s whereabouts while he was trying to escape from King Saul. In contrast, even though Ahab and his generation were known for their idolatrous inclinations, their behavior towards each other was impeccable.
In both of the sources quoted above, there seems to be a clear preference for positive interaction between human beings over the relationship between man and the Almighty. In both instances, Rashi and the midrash emphasize that the punishment incurred for lacking basic respect for others is far more severe than the punishment received for breaking the relationship between man and his Creator.
Shouldn’t the opposite be the case? Surely rebellion against a national leader is much more severe than a crime committed against one’s next-door neighbor? Surely, society sinning against the Creator should be considered at least as equally severe as man sinning against his fellow?
In attempting to answer this question, I would like to refer to the words of the Sefer HaChinuch in Mitzvah 33, honoring one’s father and mother:
“At the root of this mitzvah lies the thought that it is appropriate for a person to acknowledge the people who treated him with goodness and to reciprocate that kindness, and he should not be a despicable ingrate, for this is an evil quality, utterly vile before both God and mankind. A person should realize that his father and mother are the cause of his being in the world. It is therefore extremely fitting to give them every honor and every possible benefit, since they brought him into the world and worked hard for him in his early years…”
At this stage, one might assume that the Sefer HaChinuch has said enough. In fact, of the 613 mitzvot, this seems to be one of the more ‘straightforward’ ones. A person is expected to be eternally grateful to the parents who brought him into the world and nurtured him. It seems that this mitzvah is a classic prototype for the category of mitzvot defined as “Mitzvot Bein Adam LeChaveiro” – ‘commandments between man and his fellow.’ However, the Sefer HaChinuch continues:
“Once a person establishes this quality (of honoring one’s parents) firmly in his character, then he will progress to recognize the goodness of God, blessed be He, who is the primary cause of his existence and the existence of all his forebears, all the way back to Adam the very first man. A person will realize that God brought him into the light of day; provided for all his needs for his time on Earth; brought him to his destined state with all his limbs intact, and gave him a wise and intelligent spirit. And were it not for this divinely endowed spirit, he would be ‘like a horse, like a mule without understanding.’ (Tehillim, 32:9.) A person should therefore consider how very important it is for him to take extra care in his service of the Almighty.”
With this additional paragraph, the Sefer HaChinuch has totally changed our original perspective of the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents. At first, we had logically concluded that this mitzvah was a precept relating to interpersonal relationships; however, having seen the entire passage, we now understand that it is not simply teaching us our moral duty to honor and respect our parents, it is a mitzvah that is also essential for honoring the Almighty.
In order to help us understand this idea I would like to recall an incident that occurred to me as a child:
It had been a very cold night, and the roads were covered in ice. My father had gone outside to de-ice the car, and as he entered the house, he slipped, falling and knocking his head on the ground. He got up quite quickly, staggered into the hallway, and just as I was coming down the stairs, my father fainted at my feet.
Not surprisingly, I was deeply shocked by this incident, and with the hindsight granted by age, I have begun to understand why this episode had such a destabilizing effect on me.
To all intents and purposes, parents are gods in the eyes of a young child. A parent can do anything, from feeding and dressing, to opening bottles and fixing games. For the young child, the parent is the be all and end all of their existence. One of the reasons a two-year-old cries when his father leaves for work is that he thinks he’s leaving him forever. As parents, we instill confidence, security, and stability in our children. If, Heaven forbid, that stability is shaken, then the child will inevitably be deeply affected.
I now understand that my father’s collapse was a major threat to my natural perception of ‘Super Dad’ that all children have of their parents.
With this insight, we can now clearly understand the Sefer HaChinuch. If a person reaches the level where he fully understands what his parents have done for him, and he duly respects and honors them for it, then that very same person can go one step further. He can logically conclude that if this is the respect due to his physical and tangible parents, how much more honor and love should he have for the Creator of the Universe, Avinu SheBashamayim, the Parent of all parents. However, if he doesn’t even have the basic recognition and appreciation of what his parents have done for him, his chances of reaching the next stage are absolutely non-existent.
This also explains why the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents is placed as a ‘bridge’ between the first five of the Ten Commandments dealing with precepts concerning Man and God, and the last five regarding Man and his fellow. The directive to honor one’s parents has two intrinsic, inseparable elements; appreciation and respect for one’s physical parents, and appreciation and respect for God Himself.
The Sefer HaChinuch’s inspiring explanation leads us to the following conclusion:
If the ability to respect and honor one’s parents is a stepping stone to respecting and honoring God, then we can infer that if we do not appreciate the tangible human being standing in front of us, we cannot possibly hope to appreciate, let alone serve, an invisible and spiritual Divine Being.
We have now discovered a revolutionary concept! Instead of dividing the mitzvot into two separate categories, Bein Adam LeChaveiro and Bein Adam LeMakom, we can now understand that they are one complete, indivisible whole.  Bein Adam LeChaveiro commandments are simply an essential and inextricable prerequisite to cultivating Man’s relationship with God. To put it bluntly, without care and respect for the people and the things around us, we have little chance of reaching any level of Avodat Hashem.
It now becomes clear why the generation of the Flood, a generation with no acceptable social ethics, was doomed to destruction. With no basic relationship or respect between people, all was lost. With no foundations, the building collapses. With no hope for improvement, the only way is to start building again from the very beginning.
However, if a person has no relationship with Hashem, the matter is certainly serious and the true essence of life is being overlooked; yet all is not lost. As long as society has some basic moral grounding, as long as there is respect and appreciation for all around us, there is at least hope that the next stage, finding and serving the intangible Creator, can be reached. And therefore the generation of Migdal Bavel was not destroyed; it was merely dispersed in order to develop differing world views. The remaining hope was of a movement towards monotheism, and a healthy spiritual relationship with God.
Similarly, we can now understand the midrash referring to the societal norms at the time of David HaMelech. It is quite likely that both adults and children were indeed top Torah students, but we can see from their behavior that their learning was very superficial. They might have known all of the laws, and all of the verses, but they had no real knowledge of how they related to Life, Torat Chaim; the essence of Torah had not made any impact.
The truly religious person, the sincerely devout individual, is not the one who looks or acts the most religiously in public; he must surely be the one who is striving for perfection in his dealings with his fellow human beings. Only this person has a chance of really having a definitive and meaningful connection with his Creator.
Further proof of this basic Jewish philosophy can be found in the life of Avraham Avinu. Even though Avraham was the founding father of Judaism, and belief in one God, he is regularly referred to as ‘Chesed LeAvraham,’ a powerful message that the real ‘discovery’ of Hashem can and will only be made by people who are inherently people of chesed.
In Shemot, 19:2, we are told that the Jewish people (prior to the giving of the Torah,) were encamped opposite the mountain. The word ‘encamped’ is written in the singular form – ‘vayichan’ – as opposed to the plural form – ‘vayachanu.’ Rashi’s classic explanation is that the grammatical change teaches us that the people at Sinai were totally unified before receiving the Torah, encamped “as one people with one heart.” Many understand this to be praise for Bnei Yisrael; I understand this verse to be a condition for Matan Torah. It was only because the people were united that they were able to receive the Torah.
In the Tachanun prayer after the Amidah, we firstly ask Hashem, to ‘guard one people,’ and afterwards we ask Him to ‘guard the holy people.’ Once again, within the order of our daily prayers, is the crucial message that holiness must be preceded by unity.
There are innumerable sources that can be brought in support of this thesis, and it seems so obvious, yet we can all see the need to repeatedly emphasize this theme. We show such enthusiasm and vigor in our personal relationships with Hashem, whether it’s Sukkah, Tefillin, Kashrut, Shabbat, etc., but when it comes to Lashon Hara, questionable business dealings, common decency in our human relationships, we often seem to fall by the wayside.
A famous story is told of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter who once found himself stranded in Kovno for Shabbat. Everyone wanted to have the great Rabbi as their guest, but when he discovered that the local baker had no children at home and he would therefore not be depriving anyone of food, Rabbi Salanter accepted the baker’s invitation. The baker was a simple, observant Jew, but hardly a great Torah scholar.
Coming home from shul, the baker entered his house with his revered guest, took one look at the table and shouted: “Wife, why aren’t the challahs covered? How many times must I remind you?” The woman, recognizing her distinguished visitor, had tears in her eyes as she placed the challah cover over the bread.
The baker, full of pride for his observance of halachic detail, invited Rabbi Salanter to make Kiddush. “One moment,” the great rabbi said to his host, “Can you tell me why we cover the challahs?”
“Of course, Rabbi,” replied the baker. “Every child knows that when there are many different foods on the table, the first blessing is always made on the bread, after which no other blessing need be made. However, on Friday night, the first blessing must be made on the wine and so we cover the challahs so as not to embarrass them for ‘losing their place.’”
Rabbi Salanter stared at his host: “Do your ears hear what your mouth is saying? Do you think our teachers didn’t understand that a piece of dough has no feelings? When was the last time you saw a challah turn red? My dear friend, understand that our laws are meant to sensitize us to the feelings of human beings, our friends, our neighbors, and especially our spouses.”
All of us can no doubt think of similar incidents in our own lives. Why is this dissonance so prevalent? I respectfully suggest that we have not yet internalized the message to which Rashi alludes at the start of the parasha. We must understand that our spiritual lives are at stake; observing God-related mitzvot while ignoring your wife, or your husband, or your neighbor, is simply not Torah.
God is for real. And He knows when we are too. If we truly wish to develop our relationship with Him; if we really want to keep the mitzvot of Sukkah, Tefillin, Kashrut, Shabbat etc., with a sense of true fulfillment and joy, then we must first pay far more attention to our behavior with other human beings.