The Origins Of Life & The Children
Long Life and Honoring Parents
Rabbi Warren Goldstein
Why is the reward for honoring one’s parents and shooing away a mother bird from her nest the same?
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 via a surprising route. The Torah describes 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 honor 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 honoring one’s parents – they are both mitzvot which involve honoring parents, whether human or avian.
But Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz, who lived in Prague in the 1600’s, (also known for his Torah commentary, the Kli Yakar) takes it one step further. He says the great reward promised for the fulfillment 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 honoring 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 honoring 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, ex nihilo– or 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 honoring parents, sending away the mother bird, and Shabbos.
The very first mitzvah in the list of the 613 commandments compiled by Maimonides is belief in God. What’s interesting is how the Rambam frames it at the beginning of his magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah:
“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 recognize 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 symbolizes selfishness and self-absorption, while an open hand symbolizes 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 Bachyah 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 colors the way we live, that animates life itself.
We Are God’s Children
Rabbi Noson Weisz
God calls us His children. But how does the parent-child relationship we have with God express itself?
It cannot only be in the fact that God is our creator, for He is everyone’s creator.
It is certainly not expressed in the fact that He gave us commandments. It is masters who issue commands to servants; fathers do not command their children (at least not in my house).
Among humans, the parent-child relationship expresses itself in the fact that parents and children share a small intimate world. They live together and communicate their opinions and ideas to each other. Over the course of many years of intimacy, children internalize the values, judgments and priorities of their parents regarding the important aspects of life. They pick up their parents’ attitude towards marriage and the importance of relationships. They learn to imitate their way of dealing with relatives and those in the outside world. This is the way the parent-child relationship was meant to work.
One of the greatest problems of our modern world is that this type of interaction with parents is no longer the norm. Today’s children learn more from their teachers, peers and the media than from their parents. Not because human nature has altered but for the simple reason that many parents no longer spend much quality time with their kids. The close-knit nuclear family that transmits its values from generation to generation has receded from the world of the actual and retreated to the realm of the ideal.
But if the close interaction of many years standing is a sine qua non of developing a proper parent-child relationship, how is it possible for human beings ever to be described as God’s children? When do we ever live with God on such terms of intimacy?
Upon reflection, it is through the many detailed Laws of the Torah that God expresses himself as our Parent and makes it possible for us to develop ourselves as His children. It is through these instructions that He shares His judgments, values and opinions with us. He explains His views on marriage, filial obligations and the correct way to interact with society in great detail. Through these Torah laws that govern the everyday situations of life, He instills in us His sense of right and wrong. This endeavor to internalize God’s value systems has had a determinative influence on the way we study Torah and the subject matters within Torah whose teaching we emphasize.
A sense of values cannot be imparted through commandments and rituals or prayers alone. It can only be internalized through discussion and the sharing of opinions. Accordingly, this is exactly how we go about learning Torah – we discuss God’s sense of right and wrong intensively so that we can learn to follow it faithfully.
Over the centuries, many have dismissed this type of learning as irrelevant Talmudic hair splitting. Most people can understand that the learning of Halacha is necessary for people interested in keeping Jewish ritual law, or that the study of Jewish philosophy or mysticism (Kabbalah) is important to anyone interested in developing a closer bond with God. But they do not see the usefulness of studying the Talmud intensively, mastering the minutiae of a legal system that is no longer in effect and has not been so for two thousand years since the Jewish kingdom fell to the Romans.
These critics fail to appreciate that it is only by studying the Talmud that the Jews have managed to remain God’s children through all the vicissitudes of our history.
Every heated discussion of a Talmudic topic results in the internalization of God’s worldview about some aspect of human life. A person who spends the bulk of his day learning the Talmud is soaking up the atmosphere and culture of God’s house. The head of the Talmudic scholar is filled with God’s opinions about all the issues of human life. He has successfully internalized God’s worldview.
It is widely recognized that the fact that the Jewish people managed to survive 2000 years of exile and persecution is related to their fierce dedication to Torah study and observance during this period, but the mechanism that led to such dedication is far from clear. Religious rituals and even theological beliefs do not automatically survive the test of time; we have only to glance at the widespread abandonment of Jewish traditions during the past century to realize the fragility of the structure of observance. By identifying the loyalty to traditions during the two thousand year exile we are simply pushing back the mystery of Jewish survival a level. It is clearly related to Torah observance but what is the secret of the survival of observance itself? Our sages teach us that it is the diligent study of these laws that keeps our relationship with God vibrant and young.
One of the most important of the 613 mitzvot is the commandment to love God. But how are we supposed to observe this commandment? How is it possible to love God without really knowing Him? The answer of course; we really do know him very well! Through the constant study of Torah we get to know him as well as children know their parents.
Torah study contributes enormously to the quality of all our Divine service. If we have internalized God’s world-view through Torah study, when we pray, we are not contacting some remote stranger, but someone very familiar. When we carry out the dictates of the ritual law, we are not engaged in solemn ceremony. We are spending some time in our Father’s house where there are naturally different modes of behavior than those that prevail in the mundane world we live in.
We are commanded to model ourselves after God to the extent of our ability, as it is written:
“Follow in His ways…” (Deuteronomy 28:9). Just as He is described as gracious, so should you be gracious. Just as He is called merciful, so should you be merciful. Another way to put this: Imitate His good deeds and the noble midot by which He is described in the Torah. (Talmud, Sota 14a; Maimonides, Book of Mitzvot, Aseh 8)
We all have emotions and desires that help us to release the energy that powers our activities. We have feelings of ambition, love, hate, anger, generosity and so on, and every situation we face in life calls forth some combination of these feelings. But these emotions cannot be expressed in actions without first being screened.
The mind must always weigh and measure emotional responses and select the response that is appropriate to the circumstances.
In Hebrew, this ability to size up a situation and respond appropriately is called mida (plural midot). This concept has no exact equivalent in English, though it is often mistranslated as “character trait/s.” But, in fact, the word mida literally means “measure.” It stands for the ability to instinctively “measure” with our minds the appropriateness of our emotions. The development of good midot falls under the umbrella of the commandment of veholachta bidrochov, to “follow in God’s ways.”
It is the study of Talmud that enables us to internalize God’s attitudes. Applying the solutions provided by the Talmud to the events and relationships of our lives enables us to translate our natural attitudes and instinctive emotional responses into good midot.
Divine Providence orders the events of our lives in a way that ensures that we encounter precisely the situations we require to face in order to be able to express the knowledge we have acquired through our Torah learning and translate this knowledge into midot. According to the Gaon of Vilna, the translation of Torah attitudes into every day life is the purpose of our sojourn in this world.
Our midot are the truest expression of our individuality and they reflect the unique way that we, as His children, have chosen to fulfill the commandment of following in God’s ways. They are the garments that we shall wear through eternity.