The Sweet Transmission Of Tradition


If the Torah were merely a rule book, then the Revelation on Mount Sinai would have been a list of laws and prohibitions akin to the Code of Hammurabi. The Torah, of course, is more than a legal compendium. Rather, it teaches us how to live, how to give, how to bless, even how to love. Torah, at its core, constitutes a roadmap for navigating the Jewish people’s journeys from generation to generation.

This week, in Yitro, the Israelites embark towards Sinai, and the promise of freedom with sacred purpose. The centerpiece of the Torah is the Ten Commandments, known in Hebrew as the Aseret Hadibrot, literally the Ten Statements. It has been said that it captures the essence of the entire Torah.

Examining the Ten Commandments, we find two distinct sections. The first half deals with the Jewish people’s relationship with God as the Creator of the universe. The second focuses on matters pertaining to human relationships and interactions, including murder, theft and adultery.

The Fifth Commandment stands out because it seemingly belongs to both categories. The text reads: “Honor your father and your mother, so that your days will be lengthened upon the land that Hashem, your God, gives you” [Exodus 20:12].

Commentators throughout the ages have attempted to comprehend this commandment’s unique standing within the Ten. The Talmud embraces the concept that mothers and fathers are, in fact, partners with God in Creation itself. Moreover, the rabbis teach: “When a person honors his father and his mother, God says, ‘I view them as though I had dwelt among them and they honored Me’” [Tractate Kiddushin 31b]. As partners in Creation, parents assume the responsibility of being God’s representatives on earth.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th-century German sage, holds that parents’ roles extend beyond shepherding children into the world to nothing less than ensuring Judaism’s future. He asserts, “Tradition depends solely on its faithful transmission from parents to children, and on its willing acceptance by children from the hands of their parents.” In his eyes, parents are not just Divinely ordained deputies, they are called upon to act as the bridge between God and humanity and, closer to home, between their children and Jewish tradition.

The placement of the Fifth Commandment becomes more intriguing when we notice that this mitzvah is immediately preceded by the laws of Shabbat. Further, there are multiple instances in the Torah when these two mitzvot are juxtaposed. Leviticus declares: “Every person: your mother and father shall you revere, and My Sabbaths shall you observe — I am the Lord, your God” [Leviticus 19:3]. Too often to be overlooked, these juxtapositions illuminate that the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents is intrinsically linked with keeping Shabbat.

There is nothing more daunting than raising a child. As all parents know, it’s hard enough to teach our kids how to be kind, caring and studious, let alone to clean their room. When you add observing the mitzvot — especially Shabbat with all of its restrictions — it gets even more complicated and challenging. How do we make Shabbat feel like a day of excitement, fun and love?

This is exactly the question I grappled with when I became a parent. As soon as we started a family, teaching our children to love Shabbat became one of our priorities.

Nearly six years ago my sons developed a love for hot cocoa. As I prepared their Shabbat morning drink one week, we launched a family tradition called “Special Hot Chocolate.”

Every Shabbat morning our sons are served chocolate creations atop their mugs depicting scenes from that week’s Torah portion or approaching Jewish holidays. Some of our favorite concoctions have been Noah’s Ark, Abraham and Sarah’s tent, and “man overboard” in honor of Jonah. This week, the boys will certainly be presented with two chocolate slabs commemorating the Two Tablets.

The sweetest ingredient is witnessing our sons engaged in Torah learning one sip at a time.

The idea has deep roots in Jewish tradition. The custom of placing honey on the first page of Torah that a child learns conveys the same message as our family’s Special Hot Chocolate, namely that Torah and the life it prescribes should always be perceived as sweet.

The motto of Israeli chocolatier Max Brenner is, “I invite you to watch, taste, smell and feel my love story.” These contemporary words echo the timeless sentiments of Rabbi Hirsch, who avows that parents act as the Torah’s primary ambassadors by being more than transmitters of Jewish content but also exemplars of a joyous and meaningful Jewish life.

Baked into Jewish tradition and the Ten Commandments is the value that ultimately how we transmit Torah to our children is as important as what is conveyed. Love of Torah and Jewish life cannot just be handed over to the next generation; it must be served in a palatable and sweet manner.

Rabbi Charles E. Savenor is director of congregational education at Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.

Candlelighting, readings:

Shabbat Candles: 4:46 p.m.

Torah: Ex.18:1-20:23

Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1-9:5-6

Havdalah: 5:48 p.m.