In the beginning of this week’s Parsha, the Torah defines how to be holy. The first mitzva listed is fearing parents. It is a bit perplexing why the mitzva of honoring parents is listed first. After all, “Kedoshim tihyu – you will be holy” – implies a particularly Jewish idea. Honoring parents is not only a Jewish value. It is a universal value. So, why is honoring parents the definition of “Kedoshim tihyu”?
An answer suggested by Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik is that parents are the link in the chain back to Mount Sinai and G-d giving us the Torah. Therefore, honoring parents is a particularly Jewish value and helps raise a person to the level of “Kedoshim Tihyu – and you shall be holy.”
This idea provides a solution to another question from this week’s Parsha, asked by a colonel in the Israeli Army. The mitzva of honoring parents is followed immediately by the mitzva of keeping Shabbos. Rashi makes note of the juxtaposition of these two mitzvos and comments that the mitzva of honoring and fearing parents does not override the Shabbos. Rather, Shabbos trumps honoring parents because both the parents and the child are obligated to honor G-d. So, in that case we say “No” to the Mitzva of honoring parents and “Yes” to the Mitzva of Shabbos
Later in the Parsha, the mitzva of keeping Shabbos is followed by the Mitzva of building the Bais Hamikdash – the Temple in Jerusalem. Once again, Rashi makes note of the juxtaposition of these two mitzvos and comments that although it is a mitzva to build the Bais Hamikdash, it does not override the Shabbos. Once again, the Shabbos trumps the building of the Bais Hamikdash. Also in this case we say “No” to the other mitzva and “Yes” to the Mitzva of Shabbos.
The two instances of Shabbos trumping another mitzva are not written in a uniform manner. Regarding honoring parents, Shabbos is mentioned 2nd. In other words, honor parents but not if it violates the Shabbos. On the other hand, regarding the building of the Mikdash, the Torah says keep the Shabbos 1st and then don’t let the building of the Mikdash interfere with the Shabbos. However, for consistency, the mitzva of building the Mikdash should have been written first – build the Mikdash, but not if it violates the Shabbos.
Perhaps a solution to this difficulty lies in the suggestion from before – honoring parents is a link in the chain back to Mt. Sinai – a basic tenant of Judaism - that G-d gave us the Torah. The Jewish people cannot exist without the Torah. The Shabbos is a testimony that G-d created the world – another basic tenant of Judaism. The Jewish people cannot exist without the Shabbos. As was stated by the Zionist writer Asher Ginsburg – known as Ahad Ha’am – “more than the Jews have kept the Shabbos, the Shabbos has kept the Jews.” So, there might be room for a person to debate which takes precedence. Therefore, the Torah concludes with the tenant of Shabbos – that takes precedence. However, building the Mikdash is a Mitzva - but not a basic tenant of Judaism. The Jewish people have survived almost 2,000 years without a Mikdash. Therefore, there is no reason to think that it would supersede the Shabbos. So, Shabbos is written first in that instance.
The Torah is instructing us how to weigh different factors when making a decision. Some decisions are easy while others are not. Should I eat the kosher food or the non-kosher food? Should I go to shul, assist with the minyan and daven or stay home and watch some television?
On special Shabbasos when there are readings from more than one Sefer Torah, how does the Halacha decide which comes first? The halacha is based upon frequency. The more frequent reading comes first. When Rosh Chodesh coincides with Shabbos, we read the weekly parsha first because that is more frequent than the monthly Rosh Chodesh reading.
However, not all decisions are that simple. When making tough decisions, we must carefully weigh both sides of the scale. In Pirkei Avos we find that Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi says, “and be as careful with a light mitzva as with a stringent one, for you do not know the reward of mitzvos.” What seems as though it is inconsequential, may be significant in the eyes of G-d and what seems important to us might be irrelevant to G-d.
Daily we make about 35,000 decisions – some are more crucial than others. The Torah provides us with guidelines to help direct our decisions. Our task is to carefully read and analyze those guidelines in order to be sustained by the law and the spirit of the Torah.