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Is a bird cheap and can a mitzvah be lightweight?

Thursday, 27 August, 2020 - 6:35 pm

How easy is it to honor our parents?  I think that especially in our generation many people would say that it is very difficult.  It seems as if every problem that anyone faces today is the fault of the parents, at least for many young people.  And they let their parents know it if they talk to them at all.  (Of course this is not the case for all families, but it is very common.)  In many ways, honoring parents is not an easy Mitzvah, yet the Talmud seems to imply that it is. Let’s extrapolate that.  At the end of the tractate of Chullin (142a), the Talmud discusses a different Mitzvah, the Mitzvah of sending away a mother bird when taking her chicks or eggs.  This is one of the two Mitzvot in the Torah where the reward is stated clearly – in order that it will be good for you and you have long days.  (The other Mitzvah that carries the reward of “long days” is honoring one’s parents, more on that soon.)  The Talmud states:  If a “Mitzvah kalla” – the word kalla can be translated as “light” or “easy” – has such a great reward, how much more so the more “serious” or difficult Mitzvot!  In other words, the reason the Torah states this reward only for these two Mitzvot is not because it only applies to them.  On the contrary, it picks these Mitzvot to tell us the reward because they are light or easy Mitzvot, and from them we learn that certainly the other, more difficult Mitzvot certainly carry a great reward.  Why is the mother bird Mitzvah such a light or easy Mitzvah?  The Talmud describes it as light like an “issar” – a small coin, meaning that it doesn’t cost us much to send away the mother bird.  Another interpretation can be that it is easy and “lightweight” like a small coin.  One wonders how this applies to the other Mitzvah for which the Torah promises the same reward – honoring parents.  It is not necessarily cheap, and it certainly is not a “lightweight” Mitzvah, both in terms of the demands on us and also in terms of its seriousness, as discussed at length by our Sages.  

One explanation is that the Torah picked these two Mitzvot because they seem to be logical Mitzvot that we should perform because they make sense to us.  Nevertheless, we are greatly rewarded when we observe them, because they are the fulfillment of Hashem’s will.  There is a fascinating Mishna in the tractate of Berachot (33b) that addresses this idea.  In the days when the Temple stood and sacrifices were offered daily, the daily prayers had not yet been codified.  Knowledgeable people would lead the prayers, and would choose passages from the Torah, supplications and prayers based on their knowledge.  The Mishna says that if someone prays that Hashem who has mercy on the bird’s nest should have mercy on us, we “shut him up.”  In other words, this is not an appropriate prayer because the Mitzvot were not given for mercy but to refine the people.  The best way I think to explain this is that the focus of the Mitzvah is for us to learn compassion, to train ourselves to act in a compassionate way and to transform our evil impulses.  Although there is certainly mercy shown to the mother bird, and we are commanded not to cause undue pain to animals, the main purpose of the Mitzvah is for our connection to Hashem.  So this is referred to an “easy” mitzvah because it makes perfect sense to us, yet because the observance fulfills our mission to bring Hashem’s Presence into the world, it carries a great reward.

The same can be said for honoring parents.  It makes absolute sense (to people willing to step out of their own bubble) that parents, who were partners with Hashem in our creation and to whom we owe our very lives, should be honored and respected.  It is therefore an “easy” Mitzvah.  Even so, because observance of that Mitzvah connects us to Hashem, it carries this great reward.  From this we can extrapolate to all Mitzvot, especially those that do not make sense to us, that although the Torah does not specify a reward, there is in fact a great reward in store for their observance.  

One of the many lessons we can learn from the above concept is that the reason for Mitzvot goes far beyond what we believe we understand.  Here are two Mitzvot that do make sense to us, yet there is so much more than meets the eye, to the extent that they carry a reward of long life.  Many Mitzvot have varying degrees of logical explanation, but the overriding purpose of all of them, from the “lightest” to the “heaviest,” is that they are the fulfillment of Hashem’s will.  When we understand this, the logic becomes secondary.  It is a gift to us that Hashem has given us insight into the reasons for many of the Mitzvot.  It is important to try to understand them in order to engage all of us, including our intellect, in the Mitzvah.   But with the above-mentioned attitude, the logical explanation is secondary to the ultimate purpose.  

The Talmud says that the ultimate reward of “long days” is actually in the World to Come.  Observance of Mitzvot carries so much goodness, some of which we experience now, and most of which our souls experience.  Nevertheless this also trickles down to our daily lives.  When we live in a way that we are connected to a higher power, as opposed to according to our logic, the spiritual satisfaction that our souls experience can be felt in our every moment.

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