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Home » Free Choice, Ki Tetze

Ki Teze: The Size of a Mitzvah

Submitted by on September 7, 2019 – 10:18 pmNo Comment | 74 views

G-d did not disclose the nature of the reward that we receive for performing a Mitzvah so that we would not give preference to any ne Mitzvah over another. However, lest we assume that difficult-to-perform-mitzvot are more important than those that come easily, the Torah presents us with two mitzvot that are completely different in scope but have similar reward. The first is to honor our parents. The other is to send away the mother bird.

The Torah instructs us to send away the mother bird before collecting its eggs. The Talmud calls this an easy Mitzvah because its entire cost is that of a single bird.

By contrast, the Mitzvah of honoring our parents entails much effort. The Talmud tells us that to honor our parents properly we must provide for their needs. And when they grow older and have more needs, the mitzvah requires us to help them dress, eat, and drink, to drive them where they need to go and to support them as they walk about. This is a full-time job and if we can’t do it ourselves, we are required to hire others to do it for us. This is a difficult Mitzvah.

If the mitzvot were measured by the degree of effort that they entail, we would assume that the reward for honoring parents would be greater than the reward for sending away the mother bird. To disabuse us of this notion, the Torah tells us that that both carry a similar reward—long life.[1]

The reason is relatively simple. Performing a Mitzvah is its own reward. Doing it for the sake of the reward that we will receive is like receiving a million dollars because we like the ribbon in which they are tied.[2] To help us appreciate that all mitzvot are precious because they each are equal expressions of G-d’s will, the Torah demonstrates that two radically different mitzvot are similarly rewarded. Knowing this, we will be sure to observe all the mitzvot equally.

The Difference
Careful analyses yields a deeper understanding of these two mitzvot.

With respect to the first Mitzvah, the verse reads, “Honor your father and your mother as the Lord your God commanded you, in order that your days be lengthened, and that it should be good for you.”[3] With respect to the second Mitzvah, the verse reads, “Send away the mother, and [then] you may take the young for yourself, in order that it should be good for you, and you should lengthen your days.”[4]

Read and contrast the two verses carefully and you will find a subtle distinction in the order of the blessing. In the first verse, long life is promised ahead of good days. In the second verse, the order is reversed. In the Torah every word is precise, the question is what insight does this distinction convey?

Altruism
To answer this question we must first present a deeper explanation for why honoring our parents is difficult and sending away the mother bird is easy. Our first explanation contended that one entails more effort than the other, our second explanation will contend that one is a purer Mitzvah than the other.

The conventional understanding of religion goes like this. A person has two options. One can opt to live for personal pleasure or to live a life of devout austerity and chastity in the service of G-d. Judaism turns this thinking on its face and contends that both are possible. It isn’t easy, mind you, but it can be done.

It is relatively easy to set aside our own interests and focus on G-d’s commandments—the soul is designed to do just that. It is also easy to set aside G-d’s commandments and focus on our own interests—the body is designed to do just that. But merging the two entails an amalgam of body and soul; a dual focus on opposite objectives that requires supreme effort and concentration.

Thus, sending away the bird is an easy, relatively straightforward Mitzvah. If you want to obey G-d’s commandment, you need to sacrifice your possession—the mother bird. This Mitzvah symbolizes the notion of serving G-d in chastity. To put G-d first, we stand prepared to surrender all our material goods. It is relatively simple approach that is demanding, to be sure, but not difficult to comprehend.

Honoring parents, however, is complex and therefore difficult. On the one hand, we derive joy from giving back to our parents who raised us and lovingly tended to our needs. Moreover, we stand to benefit from this Mitzvah when our children will honor us in turn. This Mitzvah is self-serving, and yet, we are required to perform it altruistically, purely for the sake of G-d.

It requires a delicate balance and supreme focus to handle the competing claims on our conscience. We enjoy it and are intended to enjoy it. Yet, we do it for G-d and not for self-gain. This is a difficult Mitzvah. Yet, both mitzvot carry similar rewards because the value of a Mitzvah is not the benefit that we derive from it but the opportunity to serve G-d no matter how He is served.

The Reward
We can now understand the distinction in the order of the reward. The reward for sending away the mother bird begins with the promise that ensure that things will be good. The Talmud translates this goodness as the reward that we will receive in the afterlife, which makes sense. We gave up our material goods and, in return, receive a promise of spiritual goods. But then the Torah adds a surprising element. In addition to being rewarded in the afterlife, we will live a long life here on earth. Although we are prepared to do without and will therefore live a life of austerity, we will not suffer for it. We will be healthy and we will live long.

The reward for honoring our parents is presented in the opposite order. First, we will live a long life. That makes sense. If we enjoy looking after our parents and enjoy being taken care of by our children, our life will be long and enjoyable. But then the Torah adds a surprising detail. Even though we enjoyed our life of mitzvot and did not embrace austerity and suffering, we will still enjoy goodness in the world to come.

We will not lose out by enjoying ourselves in this world because our pleasure will come in the framework of serving G-d. G-d doesn’t want to see us suffering while serving Him. Our father wants to see us flourish, He wants to see us happy; so long as we are at His table, He wants us to enjoy the meal. It is not easy to balance these competing objectives, but if we achieve it, we will have lived a deeper and more meaningful life.

This essay demonstrates that the Torah must be read carefully and with attention to detail. In this case, a subtle distinction in the Torah’s phraseology reveals an entire world of depth and meaning in our understanding of life.[5]

[1] Devarim Rabbah 6:20 See also Talmud, Chulin 142a.

[2] Ethics of our Fathers 1:3. See also Maimonides, Laws of Repentance, chapter 10.

[3] Deuteronomy, 5:16.

[4] Deuteronomy 22:7.

[5] This essay is based on commentary from Mei Shiloach by Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, on Deuteronomy 22:7.

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