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Ki Teitzei

Thursday, 12 September, 2019 - 8:35 pm

 

There is a Talmudic statement by Rabbi Yaakov (Kiddushin 39b) that there is no reward for Mitzvot in this world. This is a problematic statement in light of the many rewards promised in the Torah for Mitzvot, including rain, health, peace and many others. A classic example of a Mitzvah with a reward is in this week’s Parsha (Devarim 22:6-7) “If you happen upon a bird’s nest on the way… do not take the mother with the offspring. Send away the mother and [then] take the offspring, in order that it will be good for you and you will have long days.” Sounds like a clear reward in this world. Another Mitzvah that promises long life and goodness is the Mitzvah of honoring our parents. So how does that match with Rabbi Yaakov’s teaching? The Talmud clarifies that the reward for long life and goodness is actually a reward in the world to come, the world of goodness and the world of eternity. 

 

Rabbi Yaakov’s grandfather was a great Torah scholar and later became an apostate (denier of G-d). He is known in the Talmud as “Acher” or the “other one”, so as not to mention his name. One day, he witnessed a father telling his son to climb up a tree where there was a bird’s nest, chase away the mother bird and take the chicks (or eggs). The son did so and fell off the tree and died. Acher was shocked. This young man observed the two Mitzvot for which the Torah promises long life as their reward, and he died while observing them. With that, he threw away all Torah observance and faith in Hashem. The Talmud says: “If only Acher knew the interpretation that his grandson gave to this passage, he would not have become an apostate.” Here we have another example of how reading the written Torah without the Oral Torah’s explanation simply does not give us an accurate interpretation. 

 

Nevertheless, this question is still uncomfortable. The Torah seems to clearly state, in several places, that there are physical rewards for the Mitzvot, so why should we not interpret it simply as physical reward? And if in fact some of those rewards are to be taken literally, why did it not work in the bird’s nest case? The answer can be found based on the Rambam’s response to the seeming contradiction about physical reward. He says that the true reward for our Mitzvot is in the world to come. All the promises that the Torah gives of physical blessings in this world are not really reward, but facilitation to do the Mitzvot. It is necessary to have good health and income in order to be able to live a meaningful life and observe the Mitzvot properly. There is a saying that it is expensive to be observant. Think about the higher price of kosher food, the purchase of Tefillin, Mezuzot, holy books, Tzitzit, Etrog (you can order yours here), tuition in a Jewish school, at least ten percent of our income to Tzedakah, inviting guests to our table, taking time off work for prayers and Torah study and to visit the sick and comfort the bereaved, not working on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, and so much more. How are we going to manage all that? This is what the Torah tells us -  Hashem will give if we choose a path of Torah observance. If we dedicate ourselves to following the Torah, we will be rewarded with all we need to fulfill our commitment. But none of that detracts from the true reward that we get in the World to Come.

 

I must note that the Torah teaches us to observe the Mitzvot not for the reward, even the reward in the World to Come. We should observe the Torah because that is our mission in this world, and the ultimate connection with Hashem comes from the observance of practical Mitzvot. Nevertheless we can be assured of the reward to come for our soul in the spiritual world after our lifetime on earth.

 

With this in mind, we can now understand why the death of the young man while fulfilling the Mitzvot of honoring his father and sending away the mother bird is not a contradiction to the reward promised in the Torah. Hashem determines the length of each person’s life, based on the mission each of us has. We are all given just as much time as we need to fulfill our unique mission. This man’s time had come to die, for reasons known only to his Creator. His last act was in observance of two great Mitzvot. The idea of reward in this world, the purpose of which is to facilitate our observance of Torah while we are alive, was not relevant in that case.

 

As we approach the New Year, may we all be blessed with life and health and abundance, and may we all commit to use these blessings to further our mission and make the world a better place – a home for Hashem. 

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