An Unexpected Relationship
God’s infinite wisdom is on display in every part of His creations. “How great are your works, Hashem, with wisdom you made all of them; the earth is full of your possessions.” (Psalm 104) Whether we examine minute particles in the universe or see repeated patterns, the scientist finds wisdom. Proper investigation and application of the scientific method reveal marvelous beauty, wisdom and harmony underlying relationships between the smallest structures of the universe, quarks, and quasars to the largest phenomena, galaxies, and supernova. A scientist, after years of study, comes to see the guiding principles uniting every speck of matter and energy.
This same premise holds true for God’s other creation, the Torah. It too is a fundamental premise when studying the Torah, that every word contains infinite wisdom. Hard work, investigation and study confirms to the Torah scholar the importance of every word, that sentence placement is not haphazard nor coincidental and repeated expressions are not to be attributed to the laziness of style or multiple authors.
In פרשת כי תצא, this week’s Torah reading, we come across a striking example of one such unexpected textual relationship. In chapter 22, verse 7 the Torah states, “You must first send away the mother and then you may take the young, so that it will be good for you and your days (life) will be lengthened.” Earlier in ספר דברים chapter 5, verse 16 the Torah says, “Honor your father and your mother … so that your days be lengthened and so that it will be good for you…” By the proper performance of these two mitzvoth, the Torah assures us the reward of a long life. Is this identical reward just a coincidence or is there some important philosophic and ethical connection between them?
The “long life” that the Torah is referring to as the reward for observing these commands is not a longer life in this physical world. Rather it is the reward of life in עולם הבא, the world to come, the continued existence of the soul in a non-physical dimension. The implication is that fulfilling these mitzvoth properly enhances and perfects the soul of man in a qualitative way.
Rabbi Meshulam David Soloveitchik explains that there exists a fundamental relationship between sending away the mother bird and honoring our parents. Birds and many other animals, as we know, have a natural fear of humans. Typically when a person approaches a bird to seize it, the bird flies away. Our verse discusses a case where the bird does not fly away. Rather the mother bird allows herself to be captured. Since she is protecting her young, her instinctual reaction, when faced with danger, is to remain with her young.
A human parent has the same instinctual compassion for his or her children. We observe in the bird, that the same instinct exists in human parents. As children of our own parents, we are the beneficiaries and recipients of this same self-sacrifice. What parent wouldn’t gladly give up their life to save their children? Therefore, we are obligated to respect and honor our parents. We must demonstrate our gratitude and appreciation for this level of selflessness, even though the parent may never actually be called upon give their life in this way. They are, so to speak, in a perpetual state of “standing on guard” to defend their children.
Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that the compassion we demonstrate to the mother bird is an extension of our obligation to honor and respect our own parents. Without question, the two mitzvot of כבוד and יראה, honor and respect to parents are two of the most challenging to accomplish properly. Yet we encounter in the mother bird, the same display of loving-kindness we receive from our parents. Reciprocally, we must show our appreciation of this level of selflessness and love even when we come across the situation of a mother bird and her young.
Therefore, we cannot disregard this love, represented by the mother bird sitting on her young, and take advantage of the opportunity to capture both at once. Such and act merely demonstrates our own selfish needs and desires. If we fail to recognize and appreciate the mother bird’s compassion and self-sacrifice, we may not acknowledge the compassion and selfless acts of our own parents on our behalf.
Fulfilling these two mitzvot properly truly reflects our internal perfection and the proper development of our soul. As such, we naturally merit the reward of “lengthened days,” eternal existence in עולם הבא. As we are in the month of Elul, let us use this time before Rosh Hashanah to approach the performance of every mitzvah as an opportunity to transform our souls and actualize the full potential they possess.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan