One of the better-known mitzvot of the Ten Commandments is Kabed et avicha v’et imecha, honouring our parents, for which we are promised the reward of “length of days and goodness of days.” There is another mitzvah, found in this week’s parsha, for which we are promised the same reward, and that is the mitzvah of shiluach ha’ken – sending away the mother bird. The Torah instructs that if one comes across a nest with eggs or chicks which one wishes to take, one must first send away the mother bird, “in order that it should be good for you and you should have length of days.”
Ultimate reward is only in the World to Come
The Gemara (Kidushin 39b) discusses what the terms “length of days” and “goodness of days” mean. At the heart of this discussion is the debate as to whether there is reward in this world or only in the next world. This debate 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 the righteous suffer.
The Gemara describes the case of a child who is told by his parents to climb up a tree to a bird’s next, send away the mother bird and get the eggs. The child does as he is told, thus fulfilling the mitzvah of shiluach ha’ken and the mitzvah of honouring parents – the two mitzvot for which the Torah promises the reward of long and good days – and unfortunately falls to his death. The Gemara grapples with this: how can we understand such a tragic fate, especially when there is the promise of a long and good life specifically for 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].” So when the Torah promises goodness and length of days, it refers l’olam shekulo tov v’chulo aroch, to “a world which is completely good and eternal,” namely, the next world – olam haba.
When the Torah talks about “long days” and “good days,” it cannot possibly be referring to this world because even if a person lives to be seventy or eighty years old, or even 120 years old, his or her lifespan is still a drop in the ocean, a short stay in the perspective of eternity. We can only talk about the ultimate “length of days” in the context of an eternal world. The same is true regarding ultimate goodness. In this world, all goodness is intertwined with pain and challenge. There is nothing in this world which is purely good and devoid of stress and difficulty. As a simple example, take any family simcha. When people celebrate a bar mitzvah or a wedding, while there is certainly joy there are also all kinds of financial and emotional stresses, as well as family tensions. These stressors all put a bit of a damper on the simcha, as happy as the occasion may be. So when the Torah promises a “good and long life,” it is referring to the only place where there can be pure, eternal goodness without any trace of bad, and that is only in the next world.
Many of our philosophers point out that the main reward for mitzvot is only in the World to Come because the currency of this world is not valuable enough to reward us for something as precious as a mitzvah. When we fulfil Hashem’s commandments, we deserve so much reward and the currency of this world is simply worthless in comparison. Nothing we receive in this world can ever adequately reward us for doing good deeds, and therefore the only reward for mitzvot in this world is the opportunity to do more mitzvot.
The principle of being rewarded for a mitzvah with a mitzvah is actually brought in our parsha as well. Our parsha deals with many different mitzvot: we have mentioned the mitzvah of shiluach ha’ken, of sending away the mother bird. Immediately after that the parsha tells us 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 accidents. The next mitzvah is the prohibition against planting with a mixture of different species in a vineyard. The one after that is the prohibition against ploughing with a donkey and an ox together, and the next mitzvah is the prohibition of sha’atnez, of not mixing wool and linen in garments.
The Midrash, which Rashi quotes, discusses the significance of the sequencing of all these mitzvot. These mitzvot are listed one after another to teach us the principle of mitzvah goreret mitzvah, “one mitzvah leads to another.” Meaning, 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.
We see from this Midrash that the reward for a mitzvah is another mitzvah – mitzvah goreret mitzvah. G-d cannot reward us in this world because the currency is inadequate, and so the greatest reward G-d can give us in this world is the opportunity to do another mitzvah, because in the next world we do not have the opportunity to do any more mitzvot. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot says that “One moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is equal to an entire lifetime in the World to Come.” In the World to Come, there is such clarity that there is no longer any free choice and consequently we cannot do any more mitzvot. Thus, 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; as that same Mishnah in Pirkei Avot goes on to say, “One moment of pleasure/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 tranquillity and pleasure in the next world. This is why the entire parsha is structured such that one mitzvah leads to another, because that is the way that G-d rewards us.
Mitzvot: creating a positive trend
Apart from the concept of reward, mitzvah goreret mitzvah teaches us another important life principle : positive momentum and energy lead to more positivity. And on the flip side, aveira goreret aveira, “one sin leads to another.” It is so important that we make sure we are in a positive trend and not in a negative one because positivity generates more positivity, and likewise negativity breeds more negativity. This applies in business, health, and all areas of life – and especially in the service of Hashem. When there is positive energy and productivity of good deeds that will lead to more of the same; and this is why it is such a 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 ways we can go wrong, why would we want more? But the answer is that when we have lots of opportunities to do mitzvot they generate a powerful, positive energy in our lives. The more opportunities we have to do mitzvot, the more our lives are filled with holiness, positive energy, and only good things. This is why, as the Midrash on our parsha says, we are surrounded with opportunities to do mitzvot : we have a mitzvah about a house, about the clothing we wear, about working in the field; we have a mitzvot about how to work and how to be married. Throughout life we encounter opportunities to generate positive energy, holiness and inspiration.
Respect for parenthood leads to respect for G-d
Let us address the question of the connection between the mitzvah of shiluach ha’ken and honouring parents. We mentioned that both mitzvot are rewarded with a good and long life, and given that they are both given the same reward, there must be a connection between them, though they seem to be completely different mitzvot. In fact, as the Gemara says, honouring parents is one of the hardest mitzvot to fulfil properly. In contrast, sending away the mother bird is one of the easiest mitzvot because it requires just the flick of a hand to shoo away the bird. How can we begin to compare them? What is the connection between them?
The Kli Yakar, one of our classic commentators on the Chumash, explains that honouring parents is about acknowledging and paying respect to the people who gave us our physical life in this world, and a testimony to the fact that we didn’t come from nothing. Sending away the mother bird is also about respecting parenthood, albeit in the animal kingdom, as we acknowledge that the mother bird should not have to experience the pain of watching her eggs or her chicks being taken away. This is a mark of respect to the mother bird, and this is the connection to honouring parents. Both show respect, acknowledgement and sensitivity to those who gave birth to us.
The Kli Yakar takes this one step further and says that the root of both of these mitzvot is actually an acknowledgement of Hashem Himself, who “gave birth” to everything in existence. This is why, says the Kli Yakar, these two mitzvot are so important that the Torah mentions their reward specifically; they help us develop the appropriate respect toward G-d. If we are incapable of acknowledging the concept of motherhood in nature, and if we are incapable of honouring our own parents, how can we possibly honour G-d?
When we are cognisant that honour must be accorded to those who gave birth to us – in our personal lives, with our parents, as well as in nature, with the mother bird – we can then apply this understanding to our relationship with G-d. Paying tribute to those who gave birth to us and to parenthood in general will lead us to give proper acknowledgement to G-d Himself, who gave life to all of us.
Based on this, the Kli Yakar explains the connection between the mitzvah to honour parents and the mitzvah to keep Shabbos, which we always find mentioned together in the Torah: they are right next to each other in the Ten Commandments – the fourth commandment is to remember and observe Shabbos, and the fifth is to honour our parents – and in Parshat Kedoshim as well, in chapter 19 of the book of Vayikra, the Torah brings these two mitzvot side by side. The connection between the two is that Shabbat is also about acknowledging Hashem as the Creator of the world, who created the world from nothing. As we say in the Kiddush on Friday night, Shabbos is a testimony to the fact that G-d is the Creator of everything. In this way, Shabbos is connected to the mitzvah of honouring parents because both are about creating something from nothing and acknowledging Hashem as the ultimate Creator of everything in existence.
This is why, explains the Kli Yakar, the very next mitzvah listed in our parsha after the mitzvah to send away the mother bird is the mitzvah to put up a railing in a new home. By sending away the mother bird we acknowledge the concept of parenthood and show respect toward those who gave us life, which then leads us to acknowledge G-d as the ultimate Creator of all living things. And if we acknowledge that G-d created the world from nothing, then we, too, will merit building something new – a new home. This is why the mitzvah to build a railing in a new home comes directly after the mitzvah to send away the mother bird.
Bringing new life into the world and building a new home parallel G-d’s actions in this word. G-d is constantly creating things anew, as we say in our daily davening, Hamechadesh betuvo bechol yom tamid ma’aseh bereishit, G-d in His kindness “renews Creation every single day.” Creation was not just a one-time event which G-d then left alone. He originally created it from nothing and He re-creates it every day. When we acknowledge and honour the concept of motherhood in nature, as well as our parents, we are training ourselves to acknowledge and honour G-d, the ultimate Creator of everything.