Parshat Yitro 5775
It is audacious and chutzpadik to presume that the human small can intersect with G-d’s limitless expanse. By all rights, a mere mortal cannot perceive eternity… unless G-d wills it. This week in Parshat Yitro, G-d enters human history by Revelation at Mount Sinai. Moral expectations of us are commanded. A new relationship is forged forever.
Today we join the Frost and Moses families in honouring their fathers at their decade yahrtzeit. Purposefully we preserve honour so that our parents’ names will live long in this world, and so that our children will likewise preserve our names. The Fifth Commandment in the Torah’s Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Commandments, is central and essential — Kabed et avicha v’et imecha. Honour your father and mother so that you will live long in the land (Shemot 20:12.) The gematria value of the word kabed (kaf, bet, dalet) is 26, which is G-d’s name in the Shem HaMeforash: yud, heh, vav, heh. According to the rabbis, this commandment is the hardest law of all to rightly keep. The whole point of the Sinai Revelation, to be close to G-d, centers around it.
The first four laws inform the Israelite nation, this simplest and most degraded of people just discarded from Egypt, that G-d elects them in exaltation to be priests to the world. No fake semblances of G-d. No distortion of The Name. Keep the Sabbath holy. These are our laws of creation vis-à-vis the Creator. These are the Heavens that dance within us, the establishment of G-d’s name in the land. The next column of injunctions bespeak the deadly forces that defame the names of our fathers and mothers in the land: murder, adultery, thievery, mendacity, lowly yearning for the happiness of others. These degradations diminish honour, keep our souls tipped-over, askew and ajar. The Torah stories are replete with fragmented families, brothers steeped in scurrilous hate: the fratricide of Cain to Abel, Esau’s hoarding and hordes against Jacob, the wild life of Ishmael to Isaac, the unimaginable infamy of Jacob’s ten sons conspiring against Joseph. Even Moshe Rabbeinu is slandered by his two older siblings. Where is civility? Yet the Torah does not despair.
All week long, we anticipate our Shabbat return to the crowning day of Creation to rest among our family in well-being. In preparation for the coming evening’s passion play, husband and wife read to each other the sacred Song of Songs. The text of Shir HaShirim love is the week-to-week context of Jewish family. On Erev Shabbos, family breathlessly calls on G-d’s Angels of Peace to bless each of us with blessings of peace. Shalom Aleichem Malachei Hasharet… barchuni l’Shalom. Bless me with peace so that I bless our family name with peace. This is the magisterial majesty of Shabbat. The rabbis say all blessings must lead to a furthering of peace. Shabbos menuchah is to be in pure emotional accord among parents and children. Eshet Chayil is sung and then the kiddush, the blessing of sanctity, is recited, completing the ritualized entryway into the grace of Holy Shabbos. That’s why the fourth commandment is quintessential in connecting G-d to us. It is the nexus of human and divine intertwine. G-d has instilled in the pores of our people a weekly re-entry into the Garden of Eden. Our love for one another binds and levitates an inner infinity loop. We share in our indwelling the long scope of our families before and after us. Unbordered is the Holy Land at the heart of the world, a garden with rivers flowing out across the planet. Shabbat is peace, and peace is G-d’s plan for us.
Apart from honour, the Torah commands two other emotional orientations toward our highest relations. One, to fear our mothers and fathers (Vayikra 19:3, in the middle of the Holiness Code.) Two, to love G-d — V’ahavta et HaShem Elokeicha b’chol l’vavcha uv’chol nafshcha uv’chol m’odecha. (Devarim 6:5, in the Shema.) There are no emotional commandments in relating to other family members. Why must we honour, fear, and love these three? These, of course, are the three who created us — G-d, mother, and father.
So why is honour directed first to father, fear to mother, and love to the Al(l)mighty? The commandment to love G-d seems a bit confusing. G-d is abstract and unknowable in full; claiming to love G-d is not unlike saying “I love air.” We make our ahavah, our love for G-d tangible by striving to love our lives, G-d’s first miracle gift to us. G-d created human beings in the image of infinitude. We become acquainted with this infinitude through dizzying spells of unbounded thrill. Our most intense expressions of love manifest our experience of time eternal. Love is our most G-dly act. To love is to honour and touch the infinite Presence of G-d within us.
Yirah, fear, is the most profound and deepest of the emotions. We love openly and honour freely, whereas fear we strive to reserve for that which deserves it. Yirah is the hope that we not be puny and small-minded in the privilege of our dearest relationships. Torah instructs us to fear our mother firstly because through our mothers comes our first consciousness of creation, of the miracle gift of our own life, our soul possession. This fear reminds us that our most precious sense of ownership can quickly be taken away. Death looms anywhere. Approaching intimacy through trepidation pleads for caution and care. “Honour your fear and love it” is the underwritten command. It is a shy and delicate prayer to be deserving of a bounteous life. Fear thereby transforms itself away from paralysis. We dare not be insouciant with time, our heart’s demand for a memory of Eternity precise when all we recall of it is a faint glimpse. Ultimately, yirah evolves into a celestial, supernal love that permeates the ethereal dimension, the ultimate ephemera. There is nothing more sacrosanct within the human chimera. Fear and love also represent the negative and positive mitzvot. Yirah is a stepping stone to never lose touch with the past that sired and birthed us. Ahavah is the interactive Presence of the moment, the tool we employ with all contacts and within all contexts. Love and fear together honours life.
Whereas our mothers imprint us with unconditional love and confidence in self, our fathers bestow us with the family name and impress the values they wish us to present to the world. This is why honour is directed first to father. Kavod is what we stand for with the weight of our lives. A curious ancillary is attached to this fifth commandment: what does living long on the land of Eretz Israel have to do with our attitude to our parents? Why juxtapose the two; why connect one to the other? Clearly Eretz Israel must be envisioned within each Jewish family, the land of G-d and people as one. Generation to generation carries this trajectory closer. No matter if we live in Canada or elsewhere, we remain within the echo of our parents’ march to the future. This is our ever-return to the Israelites’ first step out of Egypt. All of Israel walks to the Holy Land.
Harriet and Phil are dedicating this ten-year yahrtzeit to their fathers. Everything in life comes down to our dedication. Time stands still until beauty is brought to life, made concrete and dynamic. The yahrtzeit ceremony calls for our highest dedication of all. Our children honour us by pronouncing “amen” when they sanctify our names — Harriet to Jack and Dorothy, Phil to Eisig and Nettie.
Dorothy and Jack Frost held a sacred fellowship. They married after a lifetime’s worth of experience, as full and mature adults. Jack was resurrected after the war by his vivacious bon vivante. Dorothy’s life force gifted him the power of belief in his life again. Their glory to the Heavens is Harriet and her family, their pride revived in her and Robert. Harriet rightly struggled not to let her mother leave this world. So much glory has taken place in the Albanese family since Dorothy departed. After she left us, however, Jack continued, while living in Harriet and Bob’s Vancouver home, to charm and seek a revitalized joy and adventure. He sparkled again as he courted a revalidation of life away from loss. He brought a bounding imagination and images of grandeur to his grandchildren. This enjoyment of G-d’s world is Jack’s lasting message.
Phil Moses re-created himself with Dani. Thank G-d he has now re-found profound love. He would never settle for less than the most intense of loves, as modeled for him by Eisig and Nettie, bonded together and life-affirming. Ever since I married Phil and Dani, I modeled my love for Karen after theirs. I had never known such interesting intensity. The children have not let go of Dani. She remains ever-present. When they look deeply and closely into our eyes, they probe us for her presence. What is an angel of G-d but G-d reflecting our lovelight back upon us? Phil’s father, Eisig, a survivor from the Romanian shtetl of Ciudin who lost his parents and five siblings, remained a believer and a life-long shul-goer. With elegance and high values, he sparked camaraderie in his community. May his memory bless his family.
Yizkor is a future truth. It means “I will remember.” Yizkor is a pledge to the past, a holy vow to live daily in gratitude, so that our parents’ names will live long in God’s world with honour. This is the kaddish and the “amen” that we say to our parents. Amen. Shabbat shalom.