God, You, and your Mother

weekly-0005-2019-04-13

“Be holy, for I, the LORD your God, am holy. Let each of you revere his mother and his father…” (Leviticus 19:2-3).

We are at the glorious center of the Bible, the Holiness Code. God is telling us how to live so as to be the best version of ourselves. This is why we left Egypt, so that we could become a holy nation… and right here, we get the fine print, exactly how to set about doing that.

God starts with the overall imperative: be holy! Then, God gives us the basic reason: because holiness is how we imitate God, how we activate the godlike potential within ourselves.

But where do we start? How do we make that real? The very first step is our relationship to our mothers…. listed even before our fathers.

This is intriguing, and not only because the Bible comes from a patriarchal era, but also because the Bible is varying from its earlier phrasing. The language in the Ten Commandments is “Honor your father and your mother.” Here, we have both a different verb and a changed order of parents: “revere”, rather than “honor”, and mother first, not father.

In the wonderful way in which our Torah readings intersect our lives, we read the version in which “mother” comes first right now, on the Shabbat leading into Mother’s Day. (At least, an American rabbi sees it that way… other countries have the international woman’s day, at different times, and I would be obliged to find a different sermon… but I am confident that a good text would be found there, as well!)

Broadly speaking, our commentators parse the “mother first” word order in two ways: either as an outcome of our basic human nature, or as a corrective to our basic human failings.

The first approach is concisely expressed by Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra:

The reason for mentioning the mother prior to the father is that
a little child recognizes his mother first, and his father, only later.

In ibn Ezra’s reading, the Bible is speaking within the parameters of child psychology. Since a child’s first strong relationship is with the mother, God starts there to teach us the fundamental commandment of reverence.

The second approach appears in the Talmud (Tractate Kiddushin 30b-31a) and is popularized by the classic commentator, Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac (Rashi):

In this passage (Leviticus 19:3), the Biblical Author has placed
mother before father because it is evident that a person reveres
his father more than his mother. In “honor”, the Biblical Author
has placed father before mother because it is evident that a person
honors his mother more than his father, since she endeavors to win
him over with [gentle] words.

The point here is that a person has a measure of fear in his relationship to his father, more so than to his mother. (That is a generalization from the society that produced the rabbis who made it. No doubt, other societies have Tough Mama, a counterexample to the Rabbinic generalization, but that’s not the point.) Hence, in our current passage (Leviticus), speaking of “reverence”, in the sense of “awe”, with a tinge of “fear”, the Bible lists the mother first so that we will not treat her as a push-over. The converse holds for “honor your father”— since our warmer relationship is with mothers— that’s the nuance the Rabbis read in “honor”— God commands us to “honor” our fathers first, again, to counteract our propensity to fail in this matter.

One of the joys of Judaism is that we get to take our pick of theoretical explanations, so long as we do the right thing. Show respect to your mother, because it’s the most natural thing in the world. Or show respect to your mother, because you need to curb the tendency to disrespect her. Just show her respect! And the theoreticians can debate, happily, until the Messiah comes.

One thing is a matter of consensus, beyond the scope of the rabbinic debate: how you relate to your mother is the very first step you take towards living up to the potential for nobility that is yours by virtue of being God’s child, too.

Shabbat Shalom! And Happy Mother’s Day!

Rabbi Michael Panitz