This Week's Torah Portion: The Biggest and Smallest Commandments (Part 46)

We’re publishing a weekly series of articles covering each week’s Torah portion as a rabbi (such as the author) might do via a talk in a synagogue. The series is tailored so it may also be read by non-Jews who may be interested in how Jews read and interpret Scripture. Click here for the first article in the series.


Parashath Ki Thétzé’ (Deuteronomy XXI, 10-XXV, 19)

This week’s parasha contains the remarkable commandment of shilluach haqén. The relevant verses (XXII, 6-7) read:

For there will occur a bird’s nest before you on the way, in any tree or on the ground, chicks or eggs, and the mother is crouching on the chicks or on the eggs, you may not take the mother with the young. You will surely send forth the mother and you will take the young, in order that it will be good for you and you will have longevity.

The Midrash Tanchuma compares this commandment with that of kibbud av va’ém (“honoring one’s father and mother”; cf. Exodus XX, 12 and Deuteronomy V, 16), observing:

Each and every commandment’s reward is mentioned in the Torah, such as kibbud av va’ém and shilluach haqén, concerning which longevity is written.

The great 19th century sage Rabbi Chanoch Zundel ben Yoséf, author of the ‘Étz Yoséf, comments on this midrash, noting that it cannot be claiming that the rewards for each of the 613 commandments are clearly stated in the Torah, for it is not so. But, since the reward for the least consequential commandment (shilluach haqén) and the most consequential (kibbud av va’ém) is mentioned, one can understand that there is a reward for every commandment in between.

The midrash and the eventuality on which it comments awaken a couple of questions:

  1. In what way is arichath yamim, longevity, a reward? There are Talmudic statements which seem to contradict this notion, such as: Sëchar mitzva bëhai ‘alëma leika, “There is no reward for a commandment in this world (Qiddushin 30b).” Even if the language associated with shilluach haqén could be interpreted through some sort of “creative ambiguity” to refer somehow to the next world, that associated with kibbyd av va’ém, “in order that your days be long on the Earth,” leaves no doubt that the topic is longevity in this world. How can we reconcile the two concepts?
  1. Why are these two mitzvoth in particular singled out? What is there in these two mitzvoth to characterize them as a guide to the granting of rewards elsewhere?

To answer these questions it is first necessary to contemplate the reason for our existence.

Mankind was created for the purpose of perfecting and sanctifying the created universe, by elevating and clarifying the nitzotzoth haqëdusha (“sparks of sanctity”) to be found in all created things. We do this by using Creation to perform G-d’s mitzvoth. Indeed, as the Talmud points out, it is Man who is designed for the performance of mitzvoth, not mal’achim (“angels”), since it is Man who needs to eat and drink and hence can observe kashruth, Man, who has a sexual nature, etc. (cf. Shabbath 99b-89a).

Qudsha Bërich Hu istakkal bë’Oraitha uvra’ ‘alëma, declares the midraash (Bëréshith Rabba I, 2): “The Holy One, Blessed is He, looked into the Torah and created the universe.” The world was designed according to Torah. In Hillel’s famous formulation, im lo ‘achshav eimathai, (Avoth I, 4), if we do not learn Torah and do mitzvoth here and now, then where and when? As the Ozherover Rebbe is fond of observing: “This world is for doing; the next world is for resting.”

Arichath yamim is not always a blessing. A bit earlier in our parasha we encounter the case of the bén sorér umoreh (XXI, 18-21), the rebellious and wild son. Imagine, if you will, a child so utterly insubordinate and unresponsive that his parents bring him to court. They declare to the dayyanim that he has responded neither to persuasion nor to punishment, knowing that if the court validates the complaint, he will be nisqal (“stoned”). And what crimes must our rebel commit to merit such an end? In Rashi’s words (based on Sanhedrin 72a): “He is not guilty until he steals and eats a certain amount of meat and drinks a certain half-measure of wine.”

We may now join Rabbi Yossi in asking: For this he gets death?!

The Talmud responds that the Torah is looking at the end of the boy’s life. A son so wildly rebellious that his own parents have given up on him can only be at the beginning of a vicious criminal career. There can be little hope of reaching him, of awakening remorse and repentance in so hardened a rebel. Rashi, continuing in the Talmud’s steps, lays out his future career: he will squander his father’s property on wild revelry, he will learn nothing, and in the end he will resort to pillage and brigandage. Far better for the world as well as for him that such a life not be led, that he die now with this small stain, than later with the accumulated guilt of such a misspent life.

It is comforting that the Talmud goes on to assure us that such a case has never arisen: there never was such a son so evil that even his parents gave up on him.

It is an azhara, a warning, that the potential exists; study it, says the Talmud, and receive the reward; heed the warning and the reward is that such a nightmare will never occur (cf. Maharsha ad loc.)

So arichuth yamim is a blessing only for those who use it properly, in the service of the Almighty, carrying out the duties prescribed by Him in the holy Torah. It is to define who such deserving people are that the Torah associates arichuth yamim with kibbud av va’ém and shilluach haqén.

Anybody who assumes the incredibly onerous duties required properly to fulfill the mitzva of kibbud av va’ém and carries them out cheerfully and conscientiously, in middle age as in youth, despite all of the competing pressures of family and career, such a person is not likely to neglect any of the easier and less troublesome mitzvoth. Similarly, anybody who is so alive and aware of the potentialities of mitzvoth that he recognized the opportunity of shilluach haqén for what it is when it presents itself will have performed every other mitzva which has presented itself with similar gusto and care.

So the reward for these mitzvoth is … the opportunity to perform more mitzvoth! One mitzva leads to another, the Rabbis tell us (Avoth IV, 2). It is in that spirit, with the possibility to amass a vast reward in the world which is infinitely long, the next world, that we can speak of arichath yamm as a sëchar mitzva. May all of Israel merit such a sachar!