In 1964, Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson, two young astronomers, stumbled on the origins of the universe completely by accident. Sitting at their desks at Bell Labs, New Jersey, they suddenly picked up a strange buzzing sound from their telescope. The noise was emanating from all parts of the sky at all times. Puzzled by the odd signal, Penzias and Wilson did their best to eliminate all possible sources of interference, even removing some pigeons that were nesting in the antenna.
A year later, it was confirmed – this inexplicable hum was in fact Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), the radiation left over from the birth of the universe, providing the strongest possible evidence that the universe expanded from an initial violent explosion, known as The Big Bang. The CMB remains one of the most important scientific discoveries in history. In one fell swoop, the Big Bang theory – the theory that the universe had a beginning – displaced the dominant Steady State Model – that the universe had no beginning, that it simply always was.
Of course, this idea that the universe had a beginning, that it was created anew, is what Jews have maintained for thousands of years.
The subject of the origins of life comes up in this week’s parsha, Ki Tetzei, via a surprising route. In the parsha, we read about the mitzvah of Shiluach HaKen – sending away the mother bird before taking the eggs or fledglings from the nest. The reward the Torah promises for this seemingly minor action is startling “…so that it will be good for you and your days will be lengthened” (Deuteronomy 22:7).
There is in fact only one other mitzvah in the Torah for which the reward is long life: the commandment to honour one’s parents (Deuteronomy 5:16). The Talmud says this refers to life in the next world, which is truly eternal. Why is long life associated with these two commandments?
The Kli Yakar draws the connection between sending away the mother bird and honouring one’s parents – they are both mitzvot which involve honouring parents, whether human or avian.
But the Kli Yakar takes it one step further. He says the great reward promised for the fulfilment of these two mitzvot is because they touch on one of the foundational Jewish beliefs – that God is the Creator of all existence.
Both mitzvot encourage a person to think about origins. When we show respect to our parents, we acknowledge them as the source of our very existence. When we send away the mother bird, we are likewise showing sensitivity to the plight of the mother, the source of life for these eggs or fledglings. Reflecting deeply on this should eventually lead us to reflect on the source of all life – the Creator Himself.
The Talmud says there are three partners in the creation of a child – a father, mother and God. By respecting our parents, we are acknowledging those who gave birth to us. But our parents were also the product of their own parents. And that set of parents, our grandparents, were in turn the product of their parents, our great-grandparents, and so on, going all the way back to the beginning of time, to the first set of parents, Adam and Eve, who were brought into existence by God Himself. So by implication, by honouring our parents, we are also acknowledging our Father in Heaven, the Creator of the universe, the One who brought everything into being.
And that’s why, explains the Kli Yakar, Shabbos and the mitzvah of honouring our parents are juxtaposed in various places in the Torah, including the Ten Commandments. Shabbos is an even more explicit acknowledgement of God as the Creator of the universe. When we keep Shabbos, we are testifying to the fact that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. When we say Kiddush on Friday night, we refer to Shabbos as “a remembrance of the acts of Creation”. This is why Shabbos is not just something we do or observe, it’s something we believe.
The Kli Yakar calls this foundational idea – that God created the universe anew, from nothing – Chidush HaOlam, literally “the newness of the world”. Of course, this “newness of the world” stands in direct contrast to what was, as we have said, the accepted scientific wisdom from the time of Aristotle until deep into the twentieth century: that the physical universe had always simply existed. Only with the acceptance of the Big Bang theory has science taken the tentative first steps towards Jewish belief. Today, science endorses the newness of the world – but obviously what lies at the heart of Jewish belief is that God created everything in the universe, and it is this article of faith that animates these three mitzvot of honouring parents, sending away the mother bird and Shabbos.
The very first mitzvah in the list of the 613 commandments compiled by the Rambam is belief in God. What’s interesting is how the Rambam frames it at the beginning of his magnum opus, the Yad HaChazaka: “The foundation of foundations and the pillar of wisdom is to know there exists an original source, and that He brought into being everything that exists, and that everything which is found in heaven and earth, and between them only came into being through the truth of His Creation.” Notice how the Rambam intertwines the idea of God’s existence with the idea that He created the universe. In Jewish thought, these two ideas are inseparable. Notice also that the Rambam writes here that we should “know” that God created the world, and yet when he compiles his list of the 613 mitzvot in another of his major works, the Sefer HaMitzvot – he stresses the importance “to believe” in God as the Creator of the universe.
What is the difference between these two ways of phrasing the mitzvah “to believe” or “to know”? To explain the distinction, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik says when the Rambam refers to believing in God, he means the intellectual understanding and acceptance of this foundational article of faith, whereas to know that God exists refers to more of an experiential reality – knowing God is about living God, and feeling His presence and seeing His hand in everything. “To know” there is a God means taking belief beyond the realm of the intellectual and philosophical, and applying it in practical terms. Belief lies in the realm of philosophy and ideology; knowledge is more real; it is about living with an idea every single day.
Rav Soloveitchik cites a passage in the Talmud (Chagigah 16a): “He who looks at three things – a rainbow, a Nasi (the head of the Sanhedrin), and the Kohanim (while they are delivering their priestly blessing) – his eyes become dim.” He interprets the Talmud to mean that someone who sees a natural phenomenon and does not recognise the Hand of God in that phenomenon is not seeing the world for its true reality. Rav Soloveitchik explains that all three refer to situations wherein one should see and feel the presence of God, and that if someone looks at these things and does not see God, they lack sensitivity and discernment, and their eyes “become dim” as a result.
In a rainbow, one can see the magnificence of God in the physical world. We have to be able to look at God’s awesome Creations and see their beauty and perfection. Similarly, when one sees a Nasi, the head of the Sanhedrin and a great Torah scholar, one is confronted by the awesome intellectual and spiritual power that God has created and bestowed on man. We should be inspired by the greatness of the human mind. And when the Kohanim bless the people, we feel the presence of God in another way. We read that the Kohanim are commanded “to bless the nation of Israel with love”. Rav Soloveitchik explains this is why, when the Kohanim recite the blessing prior to Birkat Kohanim, their hands are clenched, and, as they turn around to face the people and bless them, they open up their hands. A clenched fist symbolises selfishness and self-absorption, while an open hand symbolises love and concern for the well-being of others. When we see this love and appreciation for others on the faces and through the gestures of the Kohanim, we should feel the presence of God, Himself. Rav Soloveitchik cites Rabbeinu Bechayei, who says when one witnesses the love between a mother and her child, one sees the presence of God.
To know God is to live with an acute awareness of all the miracles around us. It is to view the world with fresh eyes, with a sense of wonder and appreciation. It is to see God’s presence in everything; to feel close to God in good times and difficult times. To know God is not an intellectual pursuit, it is an experiential reality that colours the way we live, that animates life itself.
What’s remarkable is that these big ideas, these foundational truths that lie at the very heart of Judaism, are opened up for us by something as seemingly small as the mitzvah of Shiluach HaKen – sending away the mother bird.
Cruelty Or Compassion?
by Rabbi Abba Wagensberg
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!)
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.
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.