“Honour your father and mother.” We all know that mitzvah. The reward for observing this is probably less well-known. The Torah promises “length of days and goodness of days”. (Deuteronomy 5:16)
There is one other mitzvah, found in this week’s parsha, Ki Teitzei, for which the same reward applies – the mitzvah of shiluach haken, sending away the mother bird before taking the eggs or fledglings from the nest. The reward the Torah promises for this seemingly minor action is startling “…so that it will be good for you and your days will be lengthened”. (Deuteronomy 22:7)
The Gemara (Kiddushin 39b) discusses what the terms “length of days” and “goodness of days” mean. At the heart of this discussion is the question of whether there is reward in this world or only in the next world. This Talmudic discussion contends with one of the most difficult existential questions that we all have to deal with, in some way or another, and that is the question of why bad things happen to good people.
The Gemara brings an actual case of a child who is asked by his parents to climb a tree to a bird’s nest, send away the mother bird and claim the eggs. The child does as he is asked, thereby fulfilling both the mitzvah of shiluach haken and the mitzvah of honouring one’s parents – the two mitzvot for which the Torah promises the reward of a long and good life. And yet the child slips on his way down and falls to his death.
The Gemara grapples with this: how can we understand such a tragic fate, when there is the promise of a long and good life specifically for performing these two mitzvot? The Gemara comes to the conclusion, based on the Oral Tradition, that: S’char mitzvah b’hai alma leika – “The reward for mitzvot is not [primarily] in this world [but in the next].” In other words, when the Torah promises a good, long life, it refers to “a world which is completely long and completely good”, namely, the World to Come – Olam Haba.
If we think about it logically, it must be so; the reward for carrying out a sacred, eternal directive that comes straight from G-d cannot, of necessity, be delivered in this world. For even if a person lives a long life – 120 years – it is still infinitesimal in relation to eternity. And even if a person has all of the goodness possible within this world, those blessings will necessarily be confined to the person’s finite experience of them and the person’s own limited lifespan. Consider even those moments of sublime happiness in our lives – they are all inevitably compromised in some way or another.
All pleasure in this world is imperfect. A long life in this world is pathetically short in relation to eternity. There is only one place where “long” and “good” are eternal – and that is Olam Haba.
Our sages point out that the primary reward for mitzvot happens only in the World to Come, because the currency of this world is not valuable enough to compensate us for something as precious, and eternally significant, as a mitzvah. Nothing we receive in this world can ever adequately reward us for doing good deeds – and that is why the main reward for mitzvot in this world is the opportunity to do more mitzvot.
We encounter this principle – that a reward for a mitzvah is another mitzvah – in our parsha. Immediately after mentioning the requirement to send away the mother bird, the Torah launches into a list of other mitzvot in this parsha. The first of these is that if one builds a new home, and the roof is accessible or there is an area where people can fall off, one is obligated to build a railing to prevent such accidents. The next mitzvah is the prohibition of planting certain mixtures of plant seeds in a vineyard. This is followed by the prohibition against ploughing with a donkey and an ox together, and then by the prohibition of sha’atnez, of mixing wool and linen in a single garment.
The Midrash, which Rashi quotes, discusses the significance of sequencing these mitzvot in this way. Says the Midrash, these mitzvot are listed one after another to teach us the principle of mitzvah goreret mitzvah – “one mitzvah leads to another”. So if you send away the mother bird, you will merit building a home, whereupon you will have the opportunity to fulfil the mitzvah of building a railing; if you build the railing, you will merit having a field where you will be able to plant crops; if you follow the laws regarding planting, you will merit having animals with which to plough; and if you follow the laws regarding ploughing, you will merit having beautiful clothing, which is governed by the mitzvot of sha’atnez and tzitzit.
We see from this Midrash that the greatest reward G-d can give us in this world is the opportunity to do another mitzvah, because in the next world we no longer have the opportunity to do mitzvot. The mishna in Pirkei Avot says: “One moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is equal to an entire lifetime in the World to Come.” In the next world, there is such clarity that there is no longer any free choice, and consequently, we cannot further our spiritual growth; we cannot do any more mitzvot.
The most precious commodity we have in this world is the opportunity to do another mitzvah, for which we will get our just reward in the World to Come. The mishna goes on to say: “One moment of tranquillity of spirit in the next world is worth an entire lifetime in this world,” because there is nothing in this world that is comparable to the pleasure of the next world. This is why the parsha is structured in such a way that one mitzvah leads to another: that is precisely the way G-d rewards us. It is only in this temporary world that we have the opportunity, through our good deeds, to create a world of eternity.
Apart from the concept of reward, mitzvah goreret mitzvah teaches us another vital life principle: the importance of positive momentum. And on the flip side, the detrimental effect of negative momentum: aveira goreret aveira, “one misdeed leads to another”. We need to ensure our lives are on a positive trajectory, because positivity generates more positivity, and likewise, negativity breeds more negativity. This applies in business, health and all areas of life – and especially in our ethical conduct and service of G-d. When there is positive energy and a predominance of good deeds, it leads to more of the same. This is why it is a great privilege to have so many mitzvot.
As the Talmud says: “G-d wanted to give merit to the Jewish people; therefore, He gave them many commandments.” We might think, what sort of merit is this? We have so many mitzvot to do, so many responsibilities, so many ways we can go wrong – why would we want more? But the answer is that when we have lots of opportunities to do mitzvot, it generates a powerful energy, a positive momentum in our lives. The more mitzvot we do, the more our lives are filled with holiness, positive energy and blessings. This is why, as the Midrash on our parsha says, we are surrounded by opportunities to do mitzvot: we have mitzvot that govern the way we build a house, the way we sow our fields, the way we wear our clothes.
The Torah privileges us with countless opportunities to elevate and sanctify our everyday lives in this world. And to build something of eternal merit in the next.