In last week's parsha we saw the mitzvah of "Honor your father and your mother." So important is this mitzvah that it appeared on the side of the Tablets that dealt with mitzvos between man-and-G-d (the first four mitzvos concern the relationship between man-and-G-d, whereas the last five of the Ten Commandments, beginning with murder, are of the relationship between man-and-man).
The mitzvah to honor one's mother and father is the fifth mitzvah of the first five commandments, though it seems to be a mitzvah between man-and-his-fellow. This prompted the rabbis to teach that it is really a mitzvah between man-and-G-d, since it teaches respect and appreciation for a higher authority. It is the child-parent relationship that is supposed to prepare the child for a relationship with G-d once he becomes an adult and capable of an abstract relationship.
Hence, if one doesn't grow up with the proper respect for his parents, he will have difficulty developing the proper respect for G-d later as well. He will tend to look at himself as his own "boss," and have difficulty accepting a Higher Authority. Perhaps this is at the root of why so many young adults today do not revere G-d as they ought to, and why for many a ba'al tshuva (one who lived a secular life and then returned to Judaism), one of the last stereotypes to break is the idea of being subservient to a Higher Influence.
Honoring one's father or mother is not a mitzvah incumbent only on young children either. It is one that is active for the duration of the parent's life. What can one's child think about his own parent when he watches the latter treat his own father or mother with a lack of respect? So often, a child's feelings of respect for his parent later in life is based upon the respect shown to his parent's parent in earlier years.
If so, then it comes as a surprise to read in this week's parsha the following:
The Kohen Gadol (High Priest) of his fellow kohanim, upon whose head the oil of anointment was poured and who was consecrated to wear the [holy] clothing, [the hair] of his head should not be in disorder, nor shall he tear his garments. Neither shall he go in to any dead body, nor defile himself for his father or his mother; nor shall he leave the Temple or profane the Temple of G-d ... (VaYikrah 21:10)
...This means that he must not follow the bier (i.e., attend the funeral of his father or mother). (Sanhedrin 18a)
Now it is true that, technically, the mitzvah of honoring one's father and mother ends with the parent's death, and it is a mitzvah of honoring the dead that replaces it. Still, the line between the two is somewhat gray, and, at the very least, there is the appearance of a lack of respect for one's parent should a child's final respects not be paid properly.
When two mitzvos "collide" like this (being the Kohen Gadol and properly honoring one's deceased parent), it is an indication that a more sophisticated understanding of each mitzvah is necessary.
It is explained that the essence of the mitzvah of honoring one's father and mother is the concept of "hakores hatov" (appreciating the good). Parents give life to a child, and whether or not they properly sustain that life, still, the gift of life is still the gift of life. In appreciation of that gift, a child is supposed to maximize the opportunity of life, which is the greatest honor the child can accord the parent. This too is going to become the basis of one's relationship to G-d once the child matures into an adult.
One of the most important roles the Kohen Gadol played was to be a constant reminder of the source of good in life, and to enhance the appreciation of the entire Jewish nation of the gift of life, and the gift of Torah and mitzvos. He did this in many ways, but primarily, it was his singulardevotion to G-d and spiritual perfection to the "nth degree" that best transmitted this message to the Jewish people in the Temple and beyond.
Hence, though normally one's respect for his parent achieves the same goal, in the case of the Kohen Gadol, to leave his place of holiness and to break with his service of G-d would have accomplished just the opposite, since as the Kohen Gadol, he already symbolized the goal of showing such respect.
We find a similar idea with respect to the laws of Shabbos and the building of the Mishkan.
We learn which creative activities are forbidden to perform on Shabbos from the cessation on Shabbos of the building of the Mishkan. However, why should the Mishkan not be completed on Shabbos, when it is meant to be a dwelling place for the Divine Presence? Even after the Mishkan was completed, some of the services performed therein did in fact override Shabbos!
An answer is: Shabbos is an experience of G-d's Presence (as would the Mishkan eventually be); however, building the Mishkan was only a "process" to get to that experience. Hence, to build the Mishkan on Shabbos was to deny ourselves a ready-made experience of G-d, which we were building the Mishkan to have.
With respect to the Kohen Gadol, he already exhibited the relationship one must have with G-d that honoring one's father or mother was meant to create. Therefore, in his case, to become spiritually defiled and to leave his role as Kohen Gadol even for the sake of honoring a deceased parent, was to undermine that very process.
This is, as the Talmud states, why the mitzvah to honor one's parents concludes with the mitzvah to keep Shabbos (Yevamos 6a). For, one must honor his parents up until the point that it means breaking Shabbos (or any other mitzvah for that matter), up until the point that the process becomes the replacement for the goal itself.
(Author, lecturer, and scholar Rabbi Pinchas Winston is the director of ThirtySix.org