Friday, 28 Aug 2009

Written by Rabbi Maurice Michaels

This sidrah contains more mitzvot than any other: 74 – although depending whose list you use could also give 73 or 72—of the 613.  It’s a miscellany of laws, and we’re hard put to find any sort of logical progression, although the majority could be classified in the civil and domestic life category.  They are as different as the treatment of female prisoners of war, the inheritance problems of polygamy, the stubborn and rebellious son, restoration of lost property, transvestites and the treatment of mother birds—and that only takes us to sh’lishi!

Let’s just look at that latter one.  It’s a strange one; why does the Torah even consider the circumstances?  “If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young.  Let the mother go and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life” (Deut. 22:6–7).   The majority of commentators take this as an example of the Torah’s characteristic concern for the feelings and needs of animals.  Maimonides wrote, “If the mother is let go or escapes of her own accord she will not be pained by seeing that the young are taken away.  In most cases this will lead to people leaving everything alone, for what may be taken is in most cases not fit to be eaten.”  What I think he’s saying is that actually people don’t really want the young, they want the mother bird; but that would leave the young vulnerable and that’s why the mother bird is forbidden in those circumstances.  Nachmanides, by contrast, argued that the purpose of the command was not regard for animals as such, but rather to educate human being in kindness.

But neither answers the question I have: why carrying out this mitzvah should deserve the reward of long life.  The only other command for which this is the reward is honouring parents.  Clearly, there seems a connection in terms of there being two generations involved, but surely that of itself is a little tenuous.  The message perhaps is that for looking after one generation, the next will prosper, but the relativity of these two mitzvot seems too disparate.  

Midrash is always a good source for answers to difficult questions.  D’varim Rabbah tells a story, an analogy.  ‘A king hired labourers and brought them into his garden without disclosing what he intended to pay for the various kinds of work, lest they should neglect the work for which the pay was little for work for which the pay was high. In the evening the king called each one and asked: “At which tree have you worked?”  The first replied: “At this one.” Thereupon the king said to him: “This is a pepper tree and the pay for working at it is one golden piece.”  He then called another and asked him: “At which tree have you worked?”  And he replied “At this one.” Whereupon the king exclaimed: “This is an olive tree and the pay for working at it is 200 zuz.”  Said the labourers to the king: “You should have informed us from the outset which tree had the greater pay attached to it, so that we might have worked at it.” The king replied: “Had I done this, how would the whole of my garden have been worked?”’  So God did not reveal the reward of the precepts, except of two, the weightiest and the least weighty. The honoring of parents is the very weightiest . . . and the sending away of the mother bird is the least weighty (D’varim Rabbah 6:2).   

But how can the reward be the same for both the weightiest and the least weighty of the mitzvot? The only suggestion I can make is that this is actually the reward for fulfilling each of the commands.  Rashi comments, “The Torah promises long life to those who observe this mitzvah, which is easy to fulfill in that it demands no effort or sacrifice.  How much more so, by implication, does the promise extend to those who do difficult mitzvot.

The Talmud tells of how a young lad, at his father’s request, had approached a bird’s nest and in strict accordance with the Torah law had chased away the mother bird before taking her offspring.  But instead of being rewarded by long life, the boy fell as he climbed down from the tree and was killed.  Now here was a case of the boy following God’s laws of honouring his father and driving away the mother bird.  Surely he was doubly entitled to a long life, yet it was snuffed out immediately.  Watching this happen was a second century rabbi, Elisha ben Abuyah; as a result of this incident he denied that God ruled with justice and he defected from Judaism.  The rabbis gave him the title Acher, ‘the other one’, whenever they referred to him.  

So was Elisha right?  On the face of it, it’s very difficult to argue with him.  He was reportedly there, seeing the whole episode.  Rabbi Gunther Plaut, in his commentary wrote, ‘Through the story of Acher, the command concerning the bird’s nest became a focal point of discussions on biblical theology.  It may be doubted that the reward here held out was ever meant to be taken literally; rather, from the beginning, it was primarily hortatory: Do as God says, and He will reward you in His way.  But there was no doubt that a reward was to be expected for an observant individual or for Israel as a people.  The specifics might be unclear or temporarily unobservable, but biblical faith was unyielding in its assertion that human deeds were subject to divine judgment and its consequences.’  A more traditional response would be that of Rabbi Akiva, ‘It refers to the Life to Come, the Olam Haba, where all goes well and all is abiding.’  However, as Reform Jews, we know that we don’t do God’s mitzvot because of the reward they might offer, rather because they are the right way to act.

Rabbi Maurice Michaels
August 2009

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.