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Religiosity and Morality

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Summarized by Dov Karoll


The fifth of the Ten Commandments is honoring parents (20:12). The Maharal in Tiferet Yisrael, chapter 41 (which deals specifically with this mitzva), quotes the famous gemara in Kiddushin (31a) on this subject. This gemara recounts the story of Dama ben Netina, a gentile whose scrupulousness in honoring his parents led God to reward him with a para aduma (red heifer), which he sold to the Sages for a large sum.

Based on that gemara, the Maharal explains that the rabbis brought an example from a gentile to emphasize the fact that honoring parents is something that makes sense logically. Honoring the people who brought you into the world is something that common sense would mandate, and hence it can be proven even from a gentile. The Maharal then explains that as a result of his fulfillment of the rational mitzva of honoring parents, Dama's reward came through the classic incomprehensible mitzva, para aduma (see Rashi, Bamidbar 19:1, regarding the incomprehensibility of this mitzva).

Through this combination of the two, one reaches the complete existence of Judaism. Rashi (Shemot 16:25) demonstrates this by citing Chazal's statement (Sanhedrin 40) that in Mara the Jews received Shabbat, para aduma, and laws of justice (an example of a logical mitzva, as it is an integral part of society).

This connection between tzedek (justice) and the mitzvot which are incomprehensible (and therefore require a Divine command in order to mandate their fulfillment) is also relevant to the first part of this week's parasha, the story of Yitro's advice to Moshe. When Yitro advises Moshe to set up a justice system instead of judging everyone himself, Moshe is hesitant. The Ramban explains that in his response (18:15-16), Moshe points to three separate aspects of his role as leader. The first is that they come to him "lidrosh Elokim" - to ask Moshe to pray on behalf of sick and solve their problems, a role comparable to that of a Chassidic Rebbe. The second role is that he judges cases that come before him, playing the role of the source of justice. The third function Moshe points to is that he teaches the people the Torah - the laws, the role of posek (legislator).

Moshe wanted to keep these roles united, to emphasize the idea that interpersonal justice and moral action come from the same source as divine command and religious observance. He wanted to make it perfectly clear that to be a complete Jew, one is required not only to follow ritual law, but also to act properly toward one's fellow man.

One of the problems in the modern religious community is that religious observance and moral behavior do not always go hand in hand. There are many people who scrupulously observe every other aspect of the halakhic code, but act inappropriately toward their fellow man. While there are many areas where the religious community leads the way, it is not always in areas such as caring for the poor, helping people get jobs, etc. For some reason, people see these areas as being unrelated to the requirements of being a good Torah Jew. This is precisely the message that is being stressed both by honoring parents and by Moshe issuing justice himself. It is the requirement of every Jew to follow those mitzvot which one comes to naturally, even without command, such as morally binding commandments, as well as those which come exclusively through Divine command.


(Originally delivered Shabbat Parashat Yitro 5757.)


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