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Reward of Long Life


Ki Tetzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19 )

by Rabbi Abba Wagensberg

Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!

This week's parsha discusses the mitzvah of Shiluach HaKen - sending away the mother bird. The Torah states (Deut. 22:7) that on chancing upon a bird's nest on the way, "you should send the mother bird away and take the young for yourself - in order that it will be good for you and that you will have a long life." This guarantee of longevity is found elsewhere in the Torah concerning another mitzvah, that of honoring one's father and mother (Exodus 20:12). Why do these specific commandments share a common reward?

Furthermore, the Talmud (Brachot 33b) instructs us to silence a person who, in his prayers, requests, "Just as Your mercy, God, has reached the bird's nest, so may it reach us as well," as this is considered an improper way to pray. The Talmud, on the same page, asks why this is so. According to one opinion, the reason is that he is wrongly referring to God's commandments as merciful, when in fact they are simply decrees. Why is this mitzvah regarded as merely a decree from God, as opposed to a merciful instruction from God? Is it not a fact that we are being sensitive by sending the mother bird away prior to taking her young?

The Vilna Gaon explains that a person's completeness in serving God is established only when he masters two diametrically opposed character traits, for instance the antithetical attributes of compassion and harshness. If a person possesses only one of the traits, for example in this case, compassion, it does not necessarily determine his righteousness - because the individual may simply be a naturally kind person and need not have worked on managing the emotion and directing it appropriately. If, however, he possesses both opposing traits and displays control in utilizing these conflicting emotions correctly, it proves that he has worked on managing his emotions, and for this he is considered a righteous person.

There are two mitzvot that symbolically represent these opposing traits: (1) honoring one's parents and (2) sending away the mother bird. The former mitzvah characterizes the quality of compassion: Tending to one's parents, particularly as they become older and require more help, demands much compassion and concern from the caregiver. The latter mitzvah of Shiluach HaKen represents the attribute of harshness, as sending away the mother bird will cause her much distress as she is forcibly parted from her young.

(Maimonides supports the idea that this mitzvah is indeed not a merciful one and remarks that if the aim of the mitzvah was for the sake of being compassionate and merciful to the mother bird, God would have forbidden us to slaughter birds altogether!)

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Based on this insight, we can understand why the mitzvot of sending the bird and honoring parents share the identical reward of longevity. The Vilna Gaon explains that longevity symbolically represents completion, as a long life is often associated with a full and complete life. Thus through these mitzvot a person can reach completeness as he learns to control and use these opposing emotions accordingly. A reward of longevity (which symbolically represents completeness) is therefore highly fitting and appropriate!

We could suggest that, according to the Vilna Gaon, performance of only one of these commandments is insufficient to deserve the promised reward. Only by doing both does a person become "complete," as he has demonstrated mastery over contradictory emotions in order to serve God with all parts of his being, and therefore merits the reward of long life.

The juxtaposition of two specific verses in Psalms highlights this further. Psalms 149:7 speaks of taking revenge on nations committed to our annihilation, and just two verses later it talks of God's "splendor to all His pious ones." The Vilna Gaon explains that this Psalm teaches us that although naturally pious people are kind and compassionate, they nevertheless know to take action and act harshly when the situation and circumstances are appropriate, as dictated by God and His Torah.

It is now obvious why the Talmud considers it improper if a person calls on God to show him mercy the way God displays mercy to the mother bird: A prayer of this nature is suggesting that this mitzvah represents a compassionate and merciful act when, in fact it is exactly the opposite! Shiluach HaKen is a harsh, even cruel, act and God instructs us in this mitzvah in order to teach us a lesson that our actions should all be for the sake of Heaven and not just because we are compelled by our instincts. Compassion and harshness have their place in the service of God and we are expected to work on, and use, both these emotions appropriately.

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Based on all this, the Vilna Gaon continues, we are able to understand a verse in Genesis 22:12 which states that at the binding of Isaac (the Akeida), the angels said to Abraham that they "now know he has the fear of God." Albeit that the Akeida was the hardest test, yet why only at this stage did the angels "realize" that Abraham is a righteous person? Surely this was evident from the hospitality and kindness that he demonstrated earlier!

The Vilna Gaon points out that although Abraham did perform righteous deeds, as far as the angels were concerned, his actions may have stemmed from a natural instinct to do kindness. At the final test of the Akeida, however, when Abraham was commanded to slaughter his youngest, most beloved son (a truly harsh and cruel act that he would naturally never have dreamed of doing), he set out to act with all his mind, heart and soul, because God commanded him. It is this mastering and channeling of his emotions, for the sake of God, that confirmed to the angels how righteous and God-fearing Abraham really was.

May we all be blessed to master the art of balance, demonstrating compassion whenever possible, and harshness whenever necessary. May we merit living a long and productive life, deserving of God's protection as a mother bird protects her young.

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