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The Middle Commandment

Posted on February 13, 2020

By Hazzan Barbara Barnett 

In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, Moses is given the tablets of the Ten Commandments. It is the third month after the exodus from Egypt and the Children of Israel are in the Sinai wilderness, encamped at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and there, they await Moses’s return.

Moses goes up the mountain to receive G-d’s words—the Aseret Hadibrot—literally, the ten words or things (most popularly translated as the Ten Commandments). The commandments are usually depicted as two stone tablets with five on each side. 

The first four include an acknowledgment G-d and G-d’s oneness, as well as directives not worship false idols or to take G-d’s name in vain. Commandment #4 instructs to observe Shabbat—a day set aside for G-d. Together, they form a set of rules to address and guide our relationship with G-d.

Commandments six through ten include prohibitions against murder, adultery, stealing, bearing false witness and coveting—all guiding our relationship with each other (Ben adam l’chaveiro—between a person and his or her neighbor)

So…what about Commandment #5? (“Honor your father and your mother”)? Since it falls in the first set of five, its placement would suggest that honoring your parents is part of our relationship with G-d. But clearly, the commandment directly addresses one of our most profound interpersonal relationships. 

Maybe that’s why it’s in the middle, straddling our relationship with G-d and our fellow humans—a bridge between the two sets. Parents are seen as G-d’s partners in passing on the ethics and values of our tradition as well as the mitzvot. 

But there is a bit more to it, I think. When we are respectful to our parents, our grandparents, all of our elders, hopefully that translates to our relationships with our fellow humans, which leads directly to the commandments on the other side, something especially relevant in these days when civility toward each other seems to be eroding daily.