Ki Teitzei: Live Long and Prosper

Perhaps the greatest blessing one could hope for is a long and prosperous life.  It should come as no surprise that the Torah, as divine guide book to life, promises its adherents precisely this.  What is startling, however, is that the Torah promises this blessing for the fulfillment of two disparate commandments:

Honor thy father and thy mother, as the Lord thy God commanded thee; that thy days may be long, and that it may go well with thee, upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. (Deuteronomy 5:16).

If a bird’s nest chance to be before thee in the way, in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs, and the dam sitting upon the young, or upon the eggs, thou shalt not take the dam with the young; thou shalt in any wise let the dam go, but the young thou mayest take unto thyself; that it may be well with thee, and that thou mayest prolong thy days. (Deuteronomy 22:6-7).

The Midrash (Tanhuma, Ekev 3) explains that, with the exception of these two commandments, the reward for the commandments was not revealed in order that people not pick and choose but rather perform all the commandments equally.  The Midrash goes on to explain that these two commandments were singled out in order to illustrate that the great reward of a good and long life comes from obedience to the simplest command (i.e., sending away the mother bird), just as much as it does from fulfilling the most difficult command (i.e., honoring parents).

Given that the reward for the simplest commandment is identical to that of the most difficult commandment, it is not unreasonable to interpolate this reward as applying to all the commandments in between.  Support for this idea can be found in that these two commandments not only represent the extremes of performance, but exemplify the very structure of the commandments – each one being paradigmatic of one of the two classic categories of commandments: mishpatim (i.e., commandments whose reason is known) and hukkim (i.e., commandments whose reason is not known).

Maimonides (Hil. Meilah 8) lists as examples of mishpatim: the prohibitions against theft and murder, and the positive commandment to honor one’s father and mother.  He brings, as examples of hukkim: the prohibition to eat pig, the prohibition to eat meat in milk, the broken neck calf procedure, the red cow procedure, the scapegoat ritual, and all the sacrificial rites.  Interestingly, all his examples involve the animal kingdom; and while he did not specifically name the commandment to send the mother bird away – the reason for this commandment is the subject of such extensive controversy that it is clearly one of the hukkim.  Rabbi Elazar of Worms marks the commandment explicitly as a hok (Rokeah, Hil. Berachot 366).

The upshot of the Midrash, I suggest, is that since the Torah did not want us to favor one commandment over another it provided two outstanding examples that represent all the commandments, in breadth and depth, to convey the notion that the reward of a good and long life is the reward for performing any one of the commandments.[1]

In this interpretation, however, it would appear that I have made a difficult problem worse.  For, as noted in the Talmud (Kiddushin 39b), the very fact that these two commandments, let alone all the commandments, promise a good and long life seems so incongruous with reality that it brought at least one Talmudic scholar to apostasy.

In an attempt to reconcile the text with reality, Rabbi Yaakov in the Talmud proposes that the promised “good and long life” is not of this world but awaits man in the world to come.  This interpretation, notes Rabbi Baruch Epstein (Deut. 5, n.8), is at odds with the simple meaning of the text here as well as in numerous other places wherein the Torah promises material good for fulfillment of the commandments.  Rabbi Epstein refers to Maimonides (Teshuva 9:1) who explains that while the reward for a specific mitzvah by an individual is indeed only in the next world, the material good promised in this world is not a reward for the individual, but rather the blessed conditions afforded by God to further allow the nation to fulfill His will.

But how then, we must ask, is the nation to afford itself of this blessing?  Can one person do one command (e.g., honor parents) and bring blessing to the entire nation?  Or, does everyone have to do everything, as might be implied by the numerous verses that promise long life in conjunction with the commandments as a whole?  Looking at one example of such a command is most telling:

And thou shalt keep His statutes, and His commandments, which I command thee this day, that it may go well with thee, and with thy children after thee, and that thou mayest prolong thy days upon the land, which the Lord thy God giveth thee, forever. (Deuteronomy 4:40).

This promise to the nation for keeping the statues and commandments, it can be seen, strongly parallels the promise to the individual for keeping the paradigm statute (i.e., sending away the mother bird) and the paradigm commandment (i.e., honoring parents).  The parallelism, I believe, encourages us to understand the verses as being complementary to each other – each coming to explain the other.

First of all, it can be noted that it is clearly unrealistic for an individual to expect the reward promised for doing all the commandments by merely performing one commandment.  Second, it is equally unrealistic to expect the reward to accrue only when all the nation performs all the commandments – such a demand is altruistic to the point of absurdity.  In dismissing these extremes, the verses convey the notion of a system of commandments designed to bring the blessing of a good and long life to the nation – not, however, when everyone does everything but when each and every individual accepts upon himself the system and does any commandment(s) he or she can.

Each commandment done by the individual contributes to that great and wondrous blessing of a good and long life such that it can be said: every commandment effectuates the reward of a good and long life.  At the same time, no individual can delude himself in to thinking that his performance will guarantee him – personally – the blessing which applies to the nation as a whole.  As an individual, he contributes to the nation and enjoys the blessing of being part of a righteous nation; his personal reward, however, can only be expected in the world that is all reward.’[2]

Finally, having understood that the great blessing of a good and long life is one that accrues to the nation whose individuals strive to fulfill the commandments, it should come as no surprise that the blessing is brought to fruition only in “the land, which the Lord thy God giveth thee.”  For it is only in the land that people function as a nation, fulfilling their destiny as a light unto the nations.  And thus, it is only here, in the Promised Land, that the nation can enjoy that greatest of blessings: to live long and prosper.


[1] Interestingly, Rabbi Zev Wolf Einhorn (Maharzav) notes that there are two other commandments said to bring long life: keeping fair weights (Deut. 25:15) and mezuzah (Duet. 11:21).  Now, while these are not emphasized by the Midrash, they too fit the notion of serving as paradigm for a category of commandments.  Rabbi Yehuda Loew (Gur Aryeh, Deuteronomy 5:16) explains that the two general categories can be further subdivided in to four: (1) commandments the reason of which is not revealed in any way; (2) commandments the reason of which we would not understand if it was not written – like Shabbat and Tefillin; (3) logical laws that are part of the social contract; (4) natural laws that man feels innately – like honoring parents.  Sending away the mother bird is a commandment that we do not know its reason; Mezuzah is a command, like Shabbat and Tefillin; keeping fair weights is a logical societal law; and honoring parents, as the Rabbi Loew states explicitly, are part of the laws built into nature.

[2] The explanation here also provides a solution to the question asked by the Maharzu as to how can the simplest commandment have the same reward as the most difficult – is not the reward to be commensurate with the effort?!  The answer is that the reward of a good and long life is not at all for the individual but for the nation, as contributed by the individual’s performance of the commandment.  As for the individual’s reward, it is not specified in the Torah, and is indeed commensurate with his effort, to be redeemed in the world to come.

About the Author
Rabbi Mois Navon, an engineer and rabbi, has modeled himself on the principle of "Torah U'Madda" based on the philosophy of R. Soloveitchik as articulated by R. Lamm: Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone. In this column Navon synthesizes Torah U'Madda to attain profound perspectives in the Parsha. His writings can be accessed at