Reprinted with permission from the column “The People and the Book” in The Jerusalem Report, September 11, 2000. This piece is a commentary on the weekly Torah portion “Ki Tetze,” Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19.
The promise is a nice one: “That you may fare well and live long.” The first mystery is, why it is stated as the reward for seemingly unrelated commandments: for honoring one’s father and mother (Exodus 20:12), for using honest weights and measures (Deuteronomy 25:15), and for sending away a mother bird before taking her eggs or fledglings (Deuteronomy 22:6-7). The deeper mystery, perhaps, is why we should believe that fulfilling these commandments will, in fact, result in such a reward. That’s not merely a modern question, as demonstrated by a Talmudic legend.
The Talmud, in Tractate Kiddushin, describes how Elisha Ben Abuya, the famous [second century] rabbi-turned-heretic, might have lost his faith. It presents a scene in which a father instructs his son to gather some eggs from a nest, but to be careful to first let the mother bird go. Performing his father’s request, the boy should be doubly rewarded with length of days: he is honoring his parents and sending off the mother bird. Yet he falls from the tree and dies.
Is the Reward in This World or the Next? To the Doer or Done By? Individual or Species?
Elisha, suggests the Talmud, watched this, presuming that the Biblical promise referred to the quality and length of life of the individual performing the commandments – and concluded that the promise was false, that there was neither Judge nor justice in the world. Others, including his grandson, Rabbi Ya’akov ben Korshai, take the opposite approach: we are to expect no reward whatsoever in this life for following commandments; the rewards and punishments are all in the next life. Those seem to be the only possibilities: either tangible rewards, here and now (for the individual), or ultimate satisfaction (again, for the individual) in the hereafter.
A similar assumption underlies many commentators’ views of the purpose of driving off the mother bird. [The 12th century philosopher and Jewish legal authority] Maimonides, for instance, says it is for the sake of the (individual) animal – the commandment spares the mother the pain of seeing her offspring taken. Others, like [the 13th century Spanish Bible commentator, kabbalist, and talmudist] Nahmanides, claim that the commandment is focused rather on the person, again as an individual: it teaches humane, compassionate behavior.
Yet why limit the discussion to the individual? All three of these commandments are in fact prescriptions for sustaining human society and its place in the natural world.
Beyond Compassion for/by Individuals: Responsibility for the Ecosystem and the Future
Concerning the commandment to send off the mother bird, contemporary farmer-philosopher Wendell Berry observes: “This [precept] obviously is a perfect paradigm of ecological and agricultural discipline… The inflexible rule is that the source must be preserved. You may take the young, but you must save the breeding stock.” In short, by all means eat of the fruit, but take care not to destroy the fruitfulness.
This is not only a contemporary exegesis. In the fifteenth century, [the Spanish] commentator Don Isaac Abrabanel stated: “The Torah’s intention is to prevent the possibility of untimely destruction and rather to encourage Creation to exist as fully as possible.” Therefore, “In order that you may fare well and live long” means that “it shall be good for humankind when Creation is perpetuated so that we will be able to partake of it again in the future… since if we are destined to live for many years on this earth, we are reliant upon Creation perpetuating itself.”
Readings Focused on Sustainability and Community Reconcile Competing Claims for Reward
Environmentalists call this “sustainability,” and it should be understood as creating a society that can both sustain itself, physically, over time (“length of days”) by not reaching, or breaching, the natural limits of the earth; and that can nourish its members spiritually (that they “fare well”). Our society is far from this ideal: for too long we have enjoyed the fruit, and paid no heed to preserving the fruitfulness. One imperative, then, for long and good lives here on the earth, for us collectively as a society, is treating the natural world with reverence and restraint.
The social-environmental reading of this mitzvah stands in stark contrast to the individualistic interpretations. The question of whether the commandment is for the sake of the animal or the human vanishes, because it ignores the long-term interdependency between us all. The expectation of instant material rewards, for me, now, has deep anti- environmental implications – it bespeaks short-term materialism without thought of long-term impact. Likewise, otherworldly spirituality usually denigrates this world and its physicality. The idea of inter-generational sustainability is a response to both.
The same sense of reward applies to the other two commandments that promise well being and length of days. Honoring our progenitors, that is, honors the idea of giving life and not just taking for ourselves. It rejects an inherently unsustainable throwaway culture in which even the elderly are disposable. And honest weights and measures, symbolic of fairness and equality, also represent a characteristic of a society that hopes to create well being for all its members and to endure over the long term.
We don’t just need an economy that can sustain itself, important and imperiled as that is; we need a moral and a spiritual life that can sustain and nourish us. This is the force of the promise in these mitzvot: not the long life of a single person, and not a pie-in-the-sky promise for bliss in the afterlife, but a life and a world of quality and meaning sustained for us and our children after us.
Pronounced: MITZ-vuh or meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, commandment, also used to mean good deed.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.