The Holiness of Children Depends on that of their Parents
It is written, “You shall be holy, for holy am I, the L-RD your G-d” (Leviticus 19:2), and right afterwards, “Every man: Your mother and father shall you revere” (v.3).
Several question arise from these verses:
1. Is it possible to demand that a man, who is but flesh and blood, attain a level of holiness comparable to that of G-d?
2. What connection is there between the mitzvah of being holy and the mitzvah of revering one’s mother and father? Note: According to Rashi, the mitzvah of being holy means to distance oneself from impudence and sin (see Vayikra Rabba 24:7), and according to Ramban it means to sanctify oneself in permitted things (see Yebamot 20a).
Concerning the first question, my young son Moché Aharon Yéhochoua replied that even if it is inconceivable to attain G-d’s level of holiness (Rambam, Yesodei Hatorah Chs.1-2), a person must make a supreme effort to sanctify himself as much as possible. Concerning this, the Sages have said: “It is written, ‘You shall be holy.’ Does that mean that you can be like Me [G-d]? This is why it is written: ‘for holy am I, the L-RD your G-d’ – My holiness is greater than yours” (Vayikra Rabba 24:9). The passage continues: “I am the L-RD your G-d” (Leviticus 19:3), which brings to mind the idea contained in the Zohar: “He who exhales, exhales from within himself,” to teach us that all efforts in holiness, no matter how great, are but a wind compared to G-d.
Nevertheless, the Torah teaches us that holiness consists primarily of distancing oneself from impudence, and that a person must invest all his efforts into doing so. In what way can this be done? A person should meditate on the fact that even if he came into the world without clothing, when he leaves the world he is given a shroud to preserve his honor (Ketubot 8b), so that his body is not degraded after he dies. The same applies to the spiritual realm. A person comes into the world devoid of everything, and the best way to improve himself is to flee from impudence and always be covered. If he covers himself spiritually and guards himself from forbidden relations, he will also be covered when he leaves the world without sin (Bava Metzia 107a), so that he is not degraded in the World to Come.
Why, then, is it of capital importance to distance oneself from impudence? It seems to me that with respect to this subject, the power of instinct is such that even when a person conducts his married life in accordance with the laws of the Torah, he must constantly be vigilant, since from a permitted thing he risks ending up with a trivial attitude towards forbidden desires. All this is already present in embryonic form during marriage, which perfectly clarifies the connection between the mitzvah to be holy and that of revering one’s father and mother: The root of a child’s holiness is found in his parents. If from the very beginning a child reveres his father and mother, this is a sign that the parents have invested greatly in the child’s education, demonstrating their faith in the Creator Who directs the world and Who gave the Torah in which it is stated, “Every man: Your mother and father shall you revere.” It is at that point that the child behaves like them, for “what the child says in the street is what he hears from his father or mother” (Sukkah 56b; see Rashi), and by his attitude he testifies to the holiness with which his parents conduct themselves in all aspects of their lives.
Consequently, a child who grows up in such a home possesses the strength necessary to attain the level of “ ‘You shall be holy’ – distance yourself from impudence,” and he merits arriving at the holiness of Shabbat (also cited in the same verse), the word “Shabbat” signifying cessation from all work. All depends on the education that the child receives from his parents. By adding the observance of Shabbat – by which he manifests his faith in G-d, the Creator of the world – he may attain holiness and honor, one being dependant on the other. Thus Acharei Mot Kedoshim, even after the death of his parents, he will continue to follow the path of holiness, for everything comes to him from their own holiness and the influence they had on him.
To support this idea, we may cite the Mishnah of the Tanna Akavia ben Mahalalel: “Reflect upon three things and you will not come to sin: … ‘From where you came’ – from a putrid drop; ‘and to where you are going’ – to a place of dust, maggots and worms; ‘and before Whom you are destined to give an accounting’ – before the supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He” (Perkei Avoth 3:1). To distance oneself from impudence and to be sanctified in permitted things, one must recall this drop that comes from one’s father, evoking the verse: “Every man: Your mother and father shall you revere,” as well as the end of all men, which is death (Berachot 17a). This leads a person to holiness, in passing “before Whom you are destined to give an accounting,” which is equivalent to “My Sabbaths shall you observe” (Leviticus 19:3). This consists of observing everything in order to have an answer to give to G-d. Concerning this, Rabbi Avraham Azulai wrote that one must observe these three things simultaneously so as to be protected from sin, for if a person observes only one or two of them, he will not be able to conquer his instincts and will fall back into sin. However the three together can make us holy for our entire lives.
Along the same line of reasoning, we may explain the verse, “Every man: Your mother and father shall you revere” as applying to the parents themselves. When they unite in holiness and purity, they should be careful to revere their father and mother, meaning Hashem and the holy Torah (Berachot 35b; Bamidbar Rabba 10:9). In such a case, the body and soul of the baby is formed under the best conditions, and it may easily attain holiness and a love for G-d and Torah. In addition, even after the death of a person’s father, he will continue to respect him, as it is said: “the son rises in the place of his father” (see Eruvin 70b). Not only does he recite Kaddish for the elevation of his father’s soul, but through his every deed he sanctifies G-d’s name in public.
Unfortunately, because of our many sins, today children have no respect for their parents, which was predicted for the period preceding the coming of Mashiach (Sotah 49b). In my humble opinion, this stems from the fact that parents themselves show no restraint, neither for conjugal relations nor for anything else that happens in the home, to the extent that their children revolt because they have neither admiration nor respect for them. Even after the death of their parents, such children continue to behave poorly and fail to show more respect for them than when they were alive, to the point that they end up revolting against G-d as well. All this holds true. At the beginning, one must accomplish “Every man: Your mother and father shall you revere,” and this leads to “My Sabbaths shall you observe,” which is as important as observing the entire Torah and all the mitzvot (Shemot Rabba 25:16), for being the foundation of faith in G-d, this mitzvah can lead to holiness. This is why the Torah in Parsha Kedoshim enjoins us to distance ourselves from impudence and tells us of the severe punishments incurred by those who give themselves over to it. Furthermore, the Torah warns us against the consumption of forbidden foods (in Parsha Shemini) as it is written: “Lest you become nitmetem [defiled] through them” (Leviticus 11:43). On this the Gemara states: “You will become nitamtem [insensitive]” (Yoma 39a), for these things obstruct the heart, being contrary to an acceptable level of holiness and purity. Each person should be careful not to be ensnared by it, otherwise he will behave like an animal. It is not by chance that all the nations which are devoid of Torah and fail to observe the seven Noachide laws (Bava Kama 38a) are considered as animals, or even worse, as it is written: “ ‘Stay here by yourselves with the donkey’ [Genesis 22:5] – meaning, ‘You are like the donkey’ ” (Yebamot 62a).
I saw this with my own eyes this week when taking a train with my assistant. In front of me were a father and his two sons, non-Jews, who began to spew forth the worst obscenities. The father was enjoying what his sons were saying, and for that matter all the other non-Jews in the cabin were enjoying it too, even though at first they were shocked by what they heard. After a certain time, they too began to laugh at this spectacle, while my assistant and I were in agony because we had nowhere to escape.
Despite all this, we managed to block our ears and not listen to them (see Ketubot 5b), and with some effort we were able to study Torah. It was really an act of the Satan that instead of spending two hours of study in peace, we were given two hours of study in suffering, as with the case of Jacob, who wanted to settle down in peace when the problems caused by Joseph’s disappearance began to assail him (Bereshith Rabba 84:1). At that point I thought to myself, “Now you should say the blessing, ‘Who did not make me a non-Jew’ without G-d’s Name, and tomorrow you’ll say it with concentration using G-d’s Name.” Everything that we saw and heard was truly appalling, and they will end up dying like animals. G-d will erase their memory, and their future punishment will be harsh.
Consequently, without Torah and holiness, it is impossible to dominate one’s sensual desires. Now since most of the Torah’s great principles depend on this parsha of holiness (Vayikra Rabba 24:5), and since there can be no holiness without it, it was stated before the entire community. This was done so that all the Children of Israel could hear it, for the person who takes precautions even in what is permissible will end up becoming holy and pure. We already find this concept concerning Rabbeinu Hakadosh (Shabbat 118b), who was called kadosh (“holy”) because he never placed his hand below his waist. If he paid attention to such a thing, it is obvious that he was meticulously observant in all things. Despite his great wealth, when he was about die he raised his hands toward heaven and said to G-d, “You know very well that with these ten fingers I put all my effort into Torah, and I never rejoiced in this world even with my little finger” (Ketubot 104a). Thus we see how the attention that he put into distancing himself from sin at all times led him to not profit from anything, even from those things that were permitted, including food, for he only ate radishes and lettuce (Avodah Zarah 11a). In other words, he only consumed plain food that the poor ate, all because he was immersed in Torah, which led him to the summit of holiness.
The expression, “You shall be holy … Every man: Your mother and father shall you revere,” has a double meaning. It refers to both one’s biological parents and spiritual parents, meaning Hashem and His Torah. A man should feel that his origins are holy and thus act accordingly. Now all this depends on the restraint and holiness of his biological parents.
It is not by chance that the verse states, “You have distinguished the L-RD … and the L-RD has distinguished you today to be for Him” (Deuteronomy 26:17-18). Rashi explains this passage as follows: “It appears to me that the word denotes setting aside, distinguishing: You have distinguished Him, from the alien gods, to be your G-d, and He set you aside, for Himself, from the peoples of the earth, to be His treasured people,” as it is written: “You shall be to Me the most beloved treasure of all peoples” (Exodus 19:5). All this stems from the fact that the Children of Israel distanced themselves from impudence, not taking the example of the other nations, which is why G-d separated them to be a people of choice among all others. (Note that the word segula [“choice”] evokes the word segol, the Hebrew vowel formed by three points. It is possible that these three points teach us of the three who are involved in a person’s creation: G-d, father, and mother).
After having written all this, I found wonders written in the holy book Chiddushei HaRim by Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Ger on Parsha Bechukotai. He states, “Each person should strive to sanctify his house, as it is written, ‘If a man consecrates [“sanctifies”] his house’ (Leviticus 27:14). Only afterwards will he be able to arrive at holiness. In fact [in the blessing after meals] we recite, ‘for Your covenant that You sealed in our flesh,’ and only afterwards, ‘for Your Torah that You have taught us,’ for that is the main thing, the foundation.” This idea is in wonderful agreement with what we have said up to now, meaning that everything depends on the holiness of parents in the home, this being essential in Judaism.