One of the more unusual laws in the Torah brings along with it an even more unusual promise of reward: “If you chance upon a bird’s nest before you, along the road, in any tree or on the ground with fledglings or eggs and the mother bird siting over the fledglings or eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life. (Deuteronomy 22:6-7)
The reward appended to the observance of this mitzvah stands out both because this promise is rarely attached to other mitzvot and, in addition, and perhaps more significantly, because it is open to empirical critique. The Talmud records a famous story which is brought to illustrate the necessity of reinterpreting this promise in order to alleviate the empirical incongruity:
[In reference to this commandment], it is written:’ that it may be well for you, and that you may have a long life.’ Now, if one’s father said to him, ‘Ascend to the loft and bring me young birds,’ and he ascends to the loft, dismisses the mother bird and takes the young, and on his return falls and is killed — where is this man’s happiness and where is this man’s long life? But ‘in order that it may be well with you’, must mean on the day that is wholly good; and ‘in order that you may have a long life’, must mean on the day that is wholly long. Yet perhaps there was no such happening? (See Kiddushin 39b)
Note here that by reinterpreting the verse as referring to the “world to come”, the dissonance inferred in the plain meaning of the verse is removed.
The rabbinic tradition has much more to say regarding this promise and what impresses me more than the need for apologetic interpretation is the wide variety of often contradictory interpretations, which I see as one of its virtues. Some people, I suppose, value definitive interpretation and certainty. I often find uncertainty and reflection more representative of truth.
I would like to share portions of a single midrash in order to give a taste of the uniqueness of the rabbinic tradition. I want to point out here that I am not suggesting agreement with any or all of the opinions cited in this midrash. What I would like to illustrate is how a single difficult text can prompt interesting and provocative ideas on the part of the sages. My point is that the very examination of the law’s implications, discussion and debate, some of which we even might find disturbing, is what is quintessentially Jewish and worthy of note.
I have chosen excerpts from the Tanhuma, a seventh century midrash from Eretz Yisrael:
Scripture remarks on this verse: More than all that you guard, guard your mind, for it is the source of your life (Proverbs 4:23) Said Rabbi Ada: There are 248 positive commandments in the Torah like the number of limbs in a human being and each day they cry out to the human, do us so that you will live through our merit and lengthen your days. And 365 negative commandments like the days of the sun, and on each day that the sun rises until it sets, it cries out and says to a person, I decree upon you, for the one caused your days to reach this day, do not transgress on me this sin, and don’t determine for yourself and for the entire world guilt. Behold, 613 commandments. And the reward for each commandment is remembered, for instance, honoring your father and mother and shewing the mother bird, that it is written regarding them length of days… And there is no commandment among all the commandments that is easier to perform than sending away the mother bird, and what it its reward? -that life should be good for you and your days shall be lengthened…
The first part of this drasha is plainly a “sales pitch” for the performance of the commandments. Its assumption is that if God rewards this rather obscure commandment with such a dramatic reward, how much more so other commandments! It does not choose to deal with the difficulties found in this promise of reward.
In contrast, in the following segment, the author is disturbed by the fate of someone, like the individual noted in the story from the Talmud, where someone performs this commandment, climbing to a high place and falls, which seemingly contradicts the Torah’s promise:
A story about a person who climbed to the top of a tree to fulfill the commandment of shewing the mother bird and fell and died, as it says: If you chance upon a bird’s nest, and not when you see them at the top of tree and climb after them!
Here, in a lawyerly reading of the Torah’s law, this sage limits the applicability of God’s promise by noting that it only applies when the observer of the commandment, practices it safely.
And finally, an interpretation which people will love to hate. (I am leaving out an even more troubling segment.):
Scripture says: ‘Happy is the man whom You discipline, O Lord, the man You instruct in your teaching.’ (Psalms 95:12) Said Rabbi Elazar ben Yaakov: A person need to affirm the goodness of the Holy One Blessed be He when afflictions come upon him. Why? For through afflictions, people are drawn to the Holy One Blessed be He. (Excerpted from Tanhuma Ki Tetzei 2)
This segment is really an extension of the previous one. It rests on the assumption that the promise will not always be fulfilled and that “bad stuff happens”. This being the case, the author seeks meaning in suffering and has come to the conclusion that suffering has the positive divine purpose of bringing the sufferer closer to God.
The bottom line here is that “truth” is to be found in the search, and in contemplating the texts of the tradition as a source for meaning and direction. For Jews, it is the search that counts, not acceptance of dogmatic definitive answers.