August 31, 2012: Goodness and Length of Days (Ki Teitzei)

GOODNESS AND LENGTH OF DAYS (KI TEITZEI)

Continuing last week’s discussion on the Book of Life: what do we want in our lives? what blessing do we hope for, what reward do we expect, for in the coming year?

According to Maimonides, this week’s Torah reading, Ki Teitzei, contains 72 of the 613 commandments of Judaism—the most of any single weekly portion—touching on virtually every aspect of living. I would like to focus on one of them:

“If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest in a tree… with chicks in it, and the mother bird is sitting over her chicks… do not take the mother along with her young. Let the mother go, and then take the young for yourself, in order that you may have goodness and your days may be long.” (Deuteronomy 22:6-7)

We’ll talk about the purpose of this Mitzvah in a second, but for now, I’d like to point out that there is only one other commandment for which the Torah promises goodness and length of days as a reward for observance—the Fifth Commandment:

“Honor your father and your mother in order that your days may be long and in order that you may have goodness.” (Deuteronomy 5:16)

The relation between these two commandments is no accident. Jeffrey Tigay, in his JPS commentary, argues on literary grounds that the author of Deuteronomy connected them deliberately: “the clauses [“that you may have goodness” and “that your days may be long”, regarding sending off the mother bird,] repeat in reverse order the reward promised for honoring parents in the Decalogue. Inversion of clauses often indicates an intentional allusion to earlier passages in Biblical literature.” (p. 201)

In a well-known story, the Talmud also links the two commandments:

Once a father said to his son, ‘climb up that tree and fetch me young birds.’ The boy went up the tree, and sent away the mother, and took the young, and as he was returning, he slipped off, and died. Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah, known as Acher, “the Other,” saw all this, and went out, and sinned. (bKiddushin 39b)

This legend attempts to explain why R. Abuyah, a contemporary of Rabbi Akiba and comparable in stature to him, renounced Judaism in later life and embraced Roman paganism. Apparently, R. Abuyah took the child’s death, immediately following the fulfillment of not one but both Biblical commandments that promise goodness and long life, as proof that there was no God and there was no truth in Torah.

I’d like to leave the question of theodicy (“why bad things happen to God people?”) for another day. What interests me at present is the connection between the two commandments on the one hand, “honor your father and mother” and “send away the mother bird before taking the young,” and the two promises on the other: “you will have goodness” and “your days will be long.” Here are my questions:

• What is behind the Torah’s commandment: “If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest in a tree… with chicks in it, and the mother bird is sitting over her chicks… do not take the mother along with her young. Let the mother go, and then take the young for yourself?”

• What is the connection between this commandment and the Fifth Commandment?

• Consider the various interpretations we came up with last week for the Book of Life. Consider, as well, Rabbi Jehiel Orenstein’s comment: “We do not wish each other a Happy New Year, as in English, but shanah tovah, may you be inscribed for a good year.” Being inscribed for a good year in the Book of Life takes the two blessings, “you will have goodness” and “your days will be long,” and combines them into one. Can our contemplation of the twin commandments, to send away the mother bird and to honor our parents, both of which promise goodness and length of days, teach anything about what blessing we hope for in the coming year and what we want in our lives?

===

It’s the way of the world that the chick fledges and flies off. I witnessed parents dropping off their toddlers at Gan Shalom for the first time last week: the adults were more dejected than the kids, who couldn’t wait to run around and play with their new friends! At a larger stage in life, we assign a label to parents left behind after their children go off to college: “empty nesters.”

Kahlil Gibran urges acceptance in the face of the natural succession of the generations. He writes about the young: “They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow… You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.” (“On Children,” The Prophet)

For me, the interplay between the twin commandments, “send away the mother bird,” and “honor your father and mother,” represents the tension between youth and their elders and, more generally, between autonomy and tradition. Like Gibran, Judaism recognizes that the world belongs to each successive generation. I want to interpret the commandment symbolically. “Let the mother bird go, and then take the young for yourself.” “For yourself” means that before you can live for yourself, you have to let go of your mother’s apron strings, and you have to let go of the past. Unlike Gibran, however, Judaism also venerates tradition. “Honor your father and mother,” means, broadly speaking, honor your tradition, and value where you came from. Judaism upholds both change and tradition. We are both progressive and conservative.

What about the promises of goodness and long life? The children of today are the parents of tomorrow. We of the present generation should remember those who came before us in the same manner that we hope those who are yet to come will remember us. Perhaps goodness is the blessing of contributing to the perennial stream of life that spans past, present, and future. Perhaps the promise of long life refers not to our individual lives but to life of our people and the life of humanity, which existed long before we were born and will endure long after we are gone.