Commentary for Ki Teitsei

12 Sep

This week’s parshah contains that well known mitzvah that if you want to take eggs from a nest, you must shoo the mother bird away before taking the eggs, so as not to cause the mother bird the emotional pain of watching her offspring be taken from her. This mitzvah and the mitzvah of honoring your parents are the only two mitzvot for which we are promised a reward that the if one performs this mitzvah, his or her days will be prolonged and “it will be good for you (Deut 5:16, 22:7).” These seem to be a pretty straightforward, if X; then Y. If you do either of these mitzvot, you will be blessed with a good, prolonged life.

In the very last section of tractate Chulin, the Gemarah throws a giant monkey wrench into this. Rabbi Ya’akov relates a story in which a father asked his son to climb onto a terrace and get some eggs for him. The son got a ladder and climbed up onto the terrace. Upon reaching the nest he shooed the mother bird away before taking the eggs. As he climbed back down the ladder, he fell to his death. How is it that God could permit this man to die while he was simultaneously performing both mitzvot that are rewarded with a prolonged, good life?

The Gemarah runs through several possible reasons for why this could have happened, dismissing each one with a religious principle or Biblical quote, before concluding that the reward of a good, long life will be applied in The World To Come. After reaching this conclusion, the Gemarah strangely goes back to listing possible reasons for why the son might have fallen and died, before once again dismissing them with the principle that those engaged in a mitzvah are protected from harm. The Gemarah then comes to a second, seemingly unnecessary conclusion: the son died because he was using a broken ladder, and those engaged in the performance of a mitzvah are not protected from harm in a situation where injury is likely (citing I Samuel 16:2 as proof).

Shooing away the mother bird and honoring one’s parents are both mitzvahs of kindness, which is a virtue that can only be taught by example. Through acts of kindness, we not only earn our place in The World To Come, but we also teach and inspire others to perform acts of kindness, making this world a better place for ourselves and others. The son in Rabbi Ya’akov’s story was not just performing acts of kindness, but was putting himself in danger to do so. If he was willing to sacrifice so much for acts of kindness, then what excuse have we to not at least sacrifice a little of ourselves?

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