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“Mother Knows Best”

By: Rav Jonathan Bailey

The Gemara at the end Masekhet Chulin explains the reward for the mitzvah of ‘shiluach haken,’ sending off the mother bird before taking her eggs/baby birds, by juxtaposing it with the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents, due to their seemingly similar rewards. The Gemara relates a story of a son who, upon his father’s request, climbs up a ladder to fetch the eggs from a nest; however, after he sends off the mother bird and collects the eggs for his father, he falls and dies. The Gemara then questions how it can be that this boy died when he had just performed the two mitzvot that specifically promise ‘long life’? The section concludes with the answer that the ‘long life’ promised as the reward for these mitzvot is Olam HaBah, a long life in the next world. 

Interestingly, there is a blatant, fundamental ‘mistake’ this section of Gemara makes in comparing these two mitzvot; the reward for honoring one’s parents is actually ‘long life in the Land that God, your Lord, is giving you’! In fact, all specific mitzvot in the Torah, aside from shiluach haken[1], which grant ‘long life’ are promises for long life specifically in Eretz Yisrael! So, we can therefore ask: 1) why does the Gemara’s story connect these two mitzvot when they are, in fact, dissimilar in their rewards? 2) Why is this mitzvah’s reward specifically not long life in Eretz Yisrael like all the other similarly rewarded mitzvot in the Torah? 3) If we accept the midrashik approach that ‘long life’ means Olam HaBah, why is it only the mitzvah of shiluach haken that is deserving of this unique reward? What is the midrash adding to our understanding of this mitzvah?

Rambam and Ramban both explain that the reason behind this mitzvah is the same as the one for the command of not killing a mother animal and its offspring on the same day: an emotional significance. Rambam explains it from the perspective of the animals’ emotions (not making the mother/offspring witness the trapping/death of the other) while Ramban explains the significance from the perspective of the person (not acting in a brutal and heartless way). However, by comparing these two mitzvot it creates a person’s necessary dual-awareness for the mother and the offspring which is specifically not focused on in the mitzvah of sending off the mother bird; the ‘subjects’ in that mitzvah are either very young birds or eggs – both ‘unconscious’ of the possible cruelty surrounding them. I would posit, therefore, that the meaning behind this injunction is to create a distinct awareness within the person specifically regarding the mother bird. If a Jew is required to respect the mother bird by sending her off before he takes her young or eggs, then, through this mitzvah, the trapper is forced to appreciate the significance of the mother-role within the mother/offspring ‘relationship’ from which he is taking his benefit. In other words, this mitzvah demands recognition of the true source of a person’s possessions. Before a person can take that which he really desires, he must first respect where it came from and only then may he benefit from its bounty.

And the midrashik attribution of Olam HaBah as the reward for this Divine injunction assists in elucidating the true meaning behind the purpose of the mitzvah. For if we understand that Olam HaBah is not a place, but rather a state of being where a person’s intangible soul, having shuffled off its mortal coil, can now revel in the relationship he has forged with God through the self-development he achieved through his performance of God’s commandments during his lifetime on earth, then the reward for sending off the mother bird follows perfectly. For, when the man is forced to send off the mother bird, actively respecting the source of his prize on this microcosmic level, then the more important, macrocosmic relationship between his benefit from the world’s offerings and the Divine Source behind it is not only more fully realized but more deeply appreciated and valued. The resulting reward for this action (Olam HaBah – purest connection with God), therefore, is that very relationship he recognized and strengthened through the physical performance of this mitzvah!

And this very same idea is also conveyed through the fact that the reward of ‘long life’ for this mitzvah is the only one not made in reference to Eretz Yisrael: the symbolic importance of the Land is that of a facilitator towards a higher consciousness of God’s presence in our daily life. Due to its lack of natural resources, the people of the Land’s sole dependence for survival is on God and His kindness, therefore the Land assumes the role of a perfect vehicle with which to catalyze the correct awareness of its inhabitants towards the true source of their continued existence. However, as explained above, the mitzvah of shiluach haken innately provides that consciousness; the observance of this command specifically awakens the awareness of the person’s ultimate, true Source for sustenance and therefore there is no need to include in its reward the awareness-vehicle of Eretz Yisrael.

And now the reason for the Gemara’s ‘mistaken’ juxtaposition of the mitzvot of shiluach haken and kibud av ve’em is perfectly clear. The comparison is used to further elucidate the meaning behind the mitzvah of shiluach haken (the subject of the previous Mishnah the subsequent Gemara was coming to explain) – i.e. the appreciation of the source behind the ‘merchandise’ (as explained above)!  The Gemara teaches that the very same relationship appreciated when one honors his parents, his personal creators, i.e. recognizing and valuing the source of one’s own life, is the one we are to focus on when sending off the mother bird before taking her eggs which will ultimately lead us to the appreciation of the most integral relationship of all, between us and our Divine Creator.



[1] There are all together 10 occurrences, excluding shiluach haken, which mention the reward of ‘long life’: 9 of them refer to long life specifically in Eretz Yisrael, and the 10th, although it does not mention the land, is found within the context of an acceptance of the entire Torah, and the observance thereof, and not as a reward for a specific mitzvah (and therefore does not fit into the same category as the other 10).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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