Candlelighting, Readings:
Candlelighting: 5:15 p.m.
Torah: Ex. 18:1-20:23
Haftorah: Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5-6
Havdalah: 6:17 p.m.

The Ten Commandments (more literally, the “Ten Statements) are the centerpiece of Yitro [Exodus 20:1-14]. At the center of these 10 pillars are the commands to honor parents and not to commit murder. Number 5, relating to parents, appears at the end of the column listing commands relating to God; Number 6, at the start of the second column listing commands relating to man. These two commands are oriented to both God and people; murder has to do with respecting human life, each in the image of God; and the parent-child relationship is part-human, part Divine.

We learn to connect to and respect God through our relationship with our parents. Honoring our parents is a practice-run, of sorts, a model for honoring God. We are moved to honor and respect our parents as God-like reflections on earth. Tradition teaches us that there are three partners in our creation: our mother, our father, and God. There is a morphing and meshing between each of these creators; our parents inspire us to serve our Divine creator, and God instructs us to honor our human creators.

There is a yin-yang flow between these adjacent Commandments. Honoring parents is the last of the first grouping of man-to-God commands, and leads into the civil rules, the first prohibiting murder, all of whom are children of God. The placement of each of these commands is not incidental.

The two columns of the Ten Commandments are in order from Heaven down to earth. On the first side, we start with the belief in God. This is relatively easy; many people are willing to commit to believing in “a power higher than themselves.” Next, we’re told to not value any other gods separate and apart from God, and also not to revere material objects as gods (not even money). From here it gets more concrete: how we speak of and reference God, and to not mistakenly speak of ungodly things as Divine. Then it gets even more practical, as we are told to set aside one day, every week of our lives, to focus solely on God. Finally, we get to an extremely specific and challenging instruction to ground our belief in God: We are told to take two real human beings and to respect and honor them every moment of every day of our lives. That’s a lot more practical, difficult and real than simply saying we believe in God.

Then we flow back into the broad and lofty, we are told not to murder another person; almost all of us will go through life easily keeping this commandment. But then as we go down this column of rules for civilization, we are instructed to not only refrain from taking someone’s soul, but to also not take their soul mate, to respect the connection between a person and their spouse. Next God instructs us to not steal any physical things from another person. Then, we are ordered to even be careful and not harm someone else with our words, which is considered a miniature form of murder. Finally, most practically and down to earth, and most difficult of all, we are commanded to not even hurt someone with the energy of our negative thoughts, a long way from not murdering.

In both the realm of man-to-God, and of man-to-man Commandments we are told to remember that our Torah does not stay in pristine Heaven but must be applied and intertwine with the details of our real, and not always neat, lives on earth. It is the specific respect that we must have for our parents, as earthly representatives of God, and the broad prohibition of not murdering, the worst thing one could do to another person, that form the core of this structure.

Connecting to God narrows down and culminates in honoring parents, and honoring our fellow man comes down to refining ourselves to the point that we respect even in our thoughts the Divine space of our fellow human beings. 

This column is dedicated to the memory of my dear father, Werner Fleischmann (Binyamin ben-Mordechai Dov), who passed away three weeks ago, may his memory be for a blessing. It was he who suggested that I submit my Torah thoughts to The Jewish Week, because he remembered how I would clip and save these columns (then written by Rabbi Emanuel Rackman) when I was a child.
Rabbi Neil Fleischmann is a teacher and guidance counselor at The Frisch School in Paramus, N.J.