Yitro – Close But Distant
Previously we learned that having set limits is an important factor in creating a feeling of security. A legal system and an authority to enforce those laws over society provide these limits in our wider society circles. In the intimate family circle this authority is wielded by the parents, and the Mitzvot to honor and revere our parents underscore their function. This theme is so central to human life that the Mitzvah to honor parents is included in the Big Ten, transmitted during the great revelation at Sinai.
The parent/child relationship is a powerful bond, and while it is often superseded by the spousal bond it remains the most enduring relationship, one that cannot be severed through separation. The obligation to honor the parent, however, defines the relationship as hierarchical. It is not like other friendships, and, no matter the age of the ‘child,’ the obligation to honor remains the same. Even posthumously this Mitzvah continues, and the mourning practices observed during the week of shiva and beyond are an expression of respect to the parent.
There is a similar requirement to pay respect to a teacher, who imparts important life lessons and imparts Torah wisdom to the disciple. The teacher/student relationship is also a hierarchical, and this is reflected by the common tradition of not referring to the teacher by first name. A parent similarly has the ‘title’ of mom or dad, and the child does not normally address the parent by first name. A teacher or parent does no favor to the child by relinquishing the ‘parental authority’ and being buddies with the child. That destroys the structure of the relationship and mitigates the ability of the parent or teacher to impart values and discipline to the child. The elder has an opportunity to pass on wisdom and experience, guiding the younger with the vision developed from accumulated knowledge. While the relationship is extremely close, especially in the case of a parent, it is also characterized by the distance of reverence.
In preparing the people for receiving the Torah at Sinai Moses was instructed to fence off the mountain. No one was allowed to ascend the mountain, on pain of death. The revelation, which created the ultimate relationship between God and the people, a mirror of the parent/child relationship, was characterized by this same distance. Limitations were imposed in order to establish a hierarchy and a built-in reverence. The people could get close – very close – but they could not ascend the mountain. They were not allowed to undermine the hierarchy of the relationship by breaching those imposed boundaries.