We are today completing our study of the mitzvot - God’s guidance for good living. We have looked closely at Biblical text this past year. We have paid attention to how these words may have had certain meanings for people in ancient times. We have studied their possible meanings for us. And, we have explored the deepest meanings that might underlie the text eternally. I hope we have learned and retained much of this Divine wisdom - to help us live our lives with love, justice, compassion, and righteousness, in close relationship with God and others.
In this study, we’ve examined the means by which these words came to us - the role of Divine revelation, their transmission to us by prophets, teachers, and sages, and the understanding that arises from ongoing study and discussion by ordinary, faithful people such as ourselves.
Our last session today will be focused on the role of the family in teaching about, and then passing on from generation to generation, the vital importance of relationship with God and living true to God’s expectations. Today’s mitzvot relate, in part, to the formation and maintenance of the family. They also relate to the health and wellbeing of the family. And, they relate, as we have noted, to the fundamental role the family plays - following on to roles played in the past by priests and prophets - in keeping God’s Way alive over time.
If parents do not teach and expect their children to learn and live as God expects, it is far less likely that they will. If children do not honor and respect their parents, especially in their role of conveying relationship with, and expectations of, God, it is far less likely that they will know and honor God and others. Unless family is preserved, at least in fundamental respects, the goal of achieving these goals becomes that much more difficult.
The mitzvot push us hard to recognize that, while there are many ways to construct strong and effective family, the failure to do so altogether or at least effectively makes precarious the perpetuation of our faith and undermines God’s expectations of us.
Who will plant and nurture faith and knowledge of God’s Way in our children, if not the family? Government? T.V.? Our culture? Even clergy or teachers, acting without strong support from parents, cannot do it, or do it particularly well. Some will indeed find their way to God without proper rearing. And some will lose their way, even after proper rearing. Yet, as we’ll study today, God calls out for help and partnership with families.
I say this fully mindful of difficulties families have. Despite our best efforts, things don’t always turn out well. There’s often pain and less success than we seek or actually deserve. I believe that God knows this and is simply guiding us on the right path of understanding and the hope that we try with sincerity.
Interestingly, these mitzvot leave open much of the details about the substantive details of family life - how precisely to rear children, how we love our spouses, and so forth. We do get guidance in these areas from other mitzvot, as we have learned from our study. But we remain largely free to choose how to build family. We are given a framework; we are shown principles; and, mostly, we are told how important the enterprise of family must be in our lives.
II. Marriage - while I will list citations for the few dozen mitzvot relating to marriage and describe their overall purpose, we’ll mostly explore three questions relating to: a) the intended effect of the mitzvot, b) what’s most important about marriage to sustaining faith and relationship with God, and c) whether there’s a weakening of the institution of marriage in our culture and what, if anything, could or should be done about it.
A. Basic Rules of Marriage - I-II. Deuteronomy 24:1-2, Deuteronomy 23:18
B. Life Within Marriage - III-VII. Deuteronomy 24:5; Leviticus 18:19, 20, Numbers 5:12
C. Who May Marry - VIII-XXXI. Leviticus 18:6, 8-18; Deuteronomy 22:24, 23:2-3, 24:4, 25:5,9
D. Other Prohibited Relations - XXXII-XXXVI. Leviticus 18:7, 14, 22-23
E. Special Concerns for Women in Marriage - XXXVII-XLII. Deuteronomy 21:11-14, 22:29; Exodus 21:8, 10, 22:15-16
F. Divorce - XLIII-XLV. Deuteronomy 24:1, 22:19
G. Essentially, these mitzvot are largely what we would expect to see in a list of traditional requirements for marriage and the conduct of marriage. There is a special concern within them about sharing faith, being faithful, and living a life in sync with God’s expectations. But, as noted above, there is little detail prescribed about the nature of the love, the specifics of most marital decisions, and so forth. Further, while there appears to be an orientation against the breaking up of marriage, there’s a fairly liberal permissiveness about the granting of divorce.
A few questions arise:
1. Do you think the balance I’ve just described is what you would have expected from the Bible as to marriage? If so, why? If not, why not?
2. What is most important about marriage to sustaining faith and relationship with God?
3. What do you think explains the fairly liberal tolerance of divorce in the Bible? Yet, we live in an era of an apparent weakening in the institution of marriage in our culture. Are we doing something wrong? What could or should be done to strengthen this institution?
III. Parenting and the Duties Owed Parents
Read: Genesis 1:28.
Genesis 1: 28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.”
Q1: What does the requirement to be fruitful and multiply mean, and why is it important?
(On one level, it means to have children. This could be what it seems on the surface. It could also mean that we are to make numerous those by whom God’s instruction and sovereignty will be spread throughout the world. We are perpetuating not only humankind but also more specifically a species that is, in effect, a people of God.
Further, it’s essential for human survival.
Also, we benefit and learn from the experience of having children.
Does this mitzvah only speak to the bearing of children? I think not. At a deeper level, it may mean to multiply and increase the exposure and acceptance of children (or, more broadly, the next generation and even the community as a whole) to God’s word and Way. At an even deeper level, one could conclude that when one uses one’s dominion in a fruitful manner that multiplies God’s presence in the world and others’ acceptance of God’s Way, one fulfills this mitzvah. This fits neatly with our overall mission to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.)
Read Exodus 20:12; Leviticus 19:3.
Exodus 20: 12 Honor your father and your mother so that your life will be long on the fertile land that the Lord your God is giving you.
Leviticus 19: 3 Each of you must respect your mother and father, and you must keep my sabbaths
Q2. What does it mean that children should honor their parents and hold them in awe? What does it mean that one’s days will be lengthened upon the land if one does so?
(Traditionally, the sages say that these mitzvot require that we provide joyfully for the needs and support of our parents. We honor God by honoring our parents. We pay respect to our parents for teaching and providing for us as children. We remember the warmth and the love, the food, the shelter, and the teaching and the upbringing. We honor them, too, as we would want our own children to honor us. As we will emphasize a lot today, through this cross-generational exercise of memory and duty, we extend relationship with God from generation to generation.
Isn’t this largely manifested when our parents teach us of God and God’s expectations and when they help us build our own relationship with God? It is this task - teaching to live in God’s way - which God places first for parents. And it is in the fulfillment of this task that God expects from children the deepest honor - not only through a profound and personal respect for parents but also in a living out of the special heritage which they have been given. In a way, one’s days are lengthened in the land when God’s ways (to which they’re committed) are spread and extended in both space and time. One’s own time in living in the Way is extended as well, when one so honors one’s parents.
Does this mean children should not honor parents who have failed to teach them of God and bring them up in God’s ways? No. They should honor parents for providing them what God would provide - love and support, guidance and blessing. Yet, the greatest expectation is preparation for relationship with God, and for that, the deepest honor from children is due.
Are parents who improperly raise their children or are otherwise bad people due honor and awe from their children? Children should honor their parents for the parenting done in accordance with God’s expectations. An otherwise bad person could be honored for parenting in that regard.
Children should not follow a parent’s request to violate God’s word.
As to a parent who seriously abuses or fails altogether at properly raising a child, this is a difficult matter, and perhaps, at its extreme, one where the obligation diminishes or even disappears.)
IV. Inheritance - From Generation to Generation
Read Deuteronomy 14:1; Numbers 27:8-11.
Deuteronomy 14: You are the Lord’s children. Don’t cut yourselves and don’t shave your foreheads for the dead
Numbers 27: 8 Speak to the Israelites and say: If a man dies and doesn’t have a son, you must hand his inheritance over to his daughters. 9 If he doesn’t have a daughter, you will give his inheritance to his brothers. 10 If he doesn’t have any brothers, you should give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. 11 If his father had no brothers, you should give his inheritance to his nearest relative from his clan. He will take possession of it. This will be a regulation and a case law for the Israelites, as the Lord commanded Moses.
Q3. Why might I be concluding our entire discussion this year with these two mitzvot? What might they mean, taken together? What lessons might they teach us as takeaways for all the study we’ve done?
As to the first of the two, you may recall that we’ve already looked in the discussion of idolatry at the prohibitions against excessive mourning.
As to the second, there are many details we won’t get into today as to how property actually passes on in the family from one who dies to those who survive. Suffice to say, it’s important in the text that there be clear rules and procedures to encourage fairness, order, and predictability. And, second, there is a strong direction that, at least for the most part and assuming normal conditions, inheritance passes on to the next generation in the family.
In the spirit of our tradition of clothes/body/soul analysis, I want to close out our extended work on the mitzvot by asking you to go deep with this question: why might I be concluding our entire discussion this year with these two mitzvot? What might they mean, taken together? What lessons might they teach us as takeaways for all the study we’ve done?
(Living fundamentally involves serving God. Yes, we mourn those whom we lose in death. But we have faith in God. We have faith as to the enduring nature of the souls of our beloved. We have faith as to God’s purposes for our lives, as well as the Divine’s eternal concern for our souls. And, in our faith, we understand that in the remaining life we have on this earth we are to serve God.
We live as God expects. We live as best we can, pursuant to God’s expectations. This is the tradition that we have received from our forebears, indeed often from our parents, whom we mourn when they die. So, living on in the tradition they have given us, we understand that excessive mourning, especially through destructive behavior or lengthy incapacity, is incompatible with that tradition and not in service of either their legacy or God’s wishes.
Instead, we should be mindful of the inheritance they pass on to us, which is partly material but mostly spiritual and ethical. It is fundamentally a tradition of serving God. We are the beneficiaries of the good name, the good will, the good deeds, the good faith, and the other resources we inherit from those who have come before us. From them, we principally inherit the mission they inherited to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation - to learn, to teach, and to practice God’s Way and words, and to spread what we inherit in furtherance of God’s sovereignty in the world.
This is a matter of the greatest importance. From generation to generation - from the duty to be fruitful and multiply in one generation to the duty to honor those who came before in the next, from the inheritance of God’s ways by one generation to the passing on of that inheritance to the next - this is the nature and fundamental importance of these mitzvot regarding the generations.
We both touch the link before us and connect to the one that follows. This receiving and passing on of God’s Way from generation to generation is as important as anything we do in our lives