How To Merit Long Life
A Hidden Message About Honoring Our Mothers
Rabbi David Fohrman
The promise for long life only comes from two commandments: honoring your parents and sending away a mother bird before taking her young. What's the common denominator here? In this week's Torah portion, Rabbi Fohrman brings new light to this strange commandment and explains why its reward is long life.
What Does the Bible Say About Mothers?The Torah tells us to honor our parents. Why? Well if we had to speculate, the most obvious answer is our parents gave us the greatest gift of all, life itself, so obviously some deference is due to them. When we honor them we are doing the least we can to those who have given us life. That, I think, is the conventional interpretation of why it is that we honor our parents, and I don't mean to argue with it here.
But, speaking personally, I myself have recently come to perceive a new wrinkle in why it is that we honor our parents, something that, at least for me, makes the Mitzvah jump to life in a whole new way, and I want to share it with you.
The insight came from something in this week's parsha that seems to have very little indeed to do with honoring your parents. So I'm going to invite you to forget everything I told you for a moment about honoring your parents, and just focus on this week's parsha and then we'll come back to our parents and kind of tie it all together.
Our parsha contains the famous Mitzvah of Shiluach Ha'kan – sending away a mother bird. The way the Torah phrases it is, if you find a nest with chicks in it or with eggs in it, and on top of the nest you notice that there is a mother bird who is crouching over her young, so the Mitzvah is:
Shalei'ach teshalach et ha'eim – send the mother bird away;
V'et ha'banim tikach lach – and then you can take the chicks for yourself or the eggs for yourself.
The great $64,000 question here is what exactly is the rationale for this Mitzvah? It seems to have some sort of ethical message – that indeed is the way almost all the commentators interpret it, but exactly what is that message?
Interpreting the Bible Verses About the Mother BirdSo again, there's a lot of discussion of this among the major Medieval Commentators, but basically the theories that are out there break up into two main groups led by the Rambam – Maimonides – and Nachmanides, as the principle proponents of two different approaches.
The Rambam, Maimonides, argues that the basic idea here is that the worst thing you could do to any parent is to force them to witness the demise of their child. The Rambam says it's not something unique to our own humanity that we can't deal with that, that's true for animals as well; and therefore the Mitzvah of Shiluach Ha'kan – sending away the mother bird – is don't impose that kind of cruelty even upon a bird. The Torah gives you permission to take eggs or take the chicks, but don't force the mother to watch helplessly the demise of her young, send her away and then you can take the chicks.
Nachmanides and those in Nachmanides' camp see it a little bit differently. Nachmanides argues that there's something here that smacks of species extinction. In other words, while the Torah gives human beings the right to consume animal products and indeed animals themselves, we all understand that there's a difference between killing a cow for food and killing out the entire species cow.
There is something ethically abhorrent, the Ramban argues, about driving an entire species to extinction, and even though you're not actually doing that here, nevertheless if you were to kill mother and child together, two generations at once – you were to take the eggs and the chicks and take the mother bird – that's a kind of unconscionable over consumption of the species and you don't do that. So if you're going to take the chicks, or you're going to take the eggs, you're going to save the mother bird, send out the mother bird, let her live. That's the Ramban's way of looking at it.
What I'd like to do with you now is to explore the actual text of the Mitzvah itself as given in this week's parsha because I think if we do, if we pay attention to the words carefully, we will discern yet another layer of meaning here in the rationale behind this Mitzvah – beyond what Maimonides and Nachmanides already tells us.
The Biblical Importance of the Mother: A Clue?Let me begin by asking you a couple of questions. First, why is this Mitzvah phrased in particular with reference to birds? Is there any reason for that? In other words, if it's just an issue like the Rambam says of don't inflict this cruelty upon a parent to watch the death of its child that would be true for any species. If it's a species extinction issue like the Ramban says, so why specifically phrase it in terms of birds? So that's question number 1.
Here's question number 2. There's a piece of the text that seems problematic here. You see the language of the text is: ki yikareh kan tzipor lefanecha – if you find this nest and you find it on a tree or you find it on the ground and there's chicks and there's eggs in there and the mother is crouching over these chicks or over these eggs. But then the phrase is: loh tikach ha'eim al ha'banim – do not take the mother upon the children. Now you have to sort of sit there and ask yourself what that phrase is doing there? It seems strangely out of place, according to both the Ramban and the Rambam.
You see as the text continues it makes sense according to either the Ramban and the Rambam; shalei'ach teshalach et ha'eim v'et ha'banim tikach lach – send out the mother and then take the children. According to the Rambam that would mean send out the mother because don't inflict this pain upon her to make her watch the demise of her young. According to the Ramban it means send out the mother so that you don't kill both on the same day.
But back up a little bit and ask yourself about that phrase, loh tikach ha'eim al ha'banim, and you find yourself in a little bit of a problematic position. What do you mean, don't take the mother upon the children? I mean that's not really the point according to either the Rambam or the Ramban.
According to the Rambam, that it's about not inflicting this pain upon the mother to watch the demise of the child, it really should be: loh tikach ha'banim bifnei ha'eim – don't take the children in front of the mother. What do you mean, don't take the mother in front of the children? It's not about taking the mother.
According to the Ramban it's not really any better; loh tikach ha'eim al ha'banim, should really have been: loh tikach ha'eim im ha'banim – don't take the mother with the children. What do you mean, don't take the mother upon the children? Why the emphasis on taking the mother?
Unless, there's another layer of meaning in this Mitzvah. The key to seeing it is to look at the reward.
The Bible's Verses on Living a Long LifeIt turns out that sending out the mother bird comes with a promised reward of long life. And there's only one other positive command in the entire Torah that comes with a promised reward, and it just so happens that that promised reward for the other Mitzvah is also long life.
What is that other Mitzvah? The other Mitzvah that carries the same reward is Kibud Av v'Eim – honoring your mother and your father. It too comes with a promise of long life. Kabed et avicha v'et imecha lema'an ya'arichun yamecha – honor your mother and father so that your days will be lengthened.
What possible common denominator could there be between the Mitzvah of sending away the mother bird and honor your mother and father? The Torah seems to be linking these Mitzvot – why?
What Is the Bible Teaching Us About Honoring Motherhood?The common denominator would seem to be the honoring of motherhood. Let me ask you a question, how easy it is to capture an adult bird? What if I told you to stop watching this video right now, go outside and take a few minutes to capture a bird? Just go out there, there's plenty of trees, probably a lot of birds in them, you can hear them chirping all over the place, just go out with your bare hands and catch me a few birds and come on back and write me an email.
How many emails of successful bird catchers do you think I'd get from you guys? Like, none, right? It ain't easy to capture a mother bird. That's the point of the Torah.
Here you are walking down the street and you see a nest with a mother hovering over its young. Right there is the one chance you have to take a mother bird with your bare hands. You know why? Because that mother bird will do anything to protect her young. She will sacrifice herself if need be in a desperate effort to fend you off. She will flutter her wings, she will hover over that nest.
Therefore you might say to yourself, you could take not just the eggs, but you could take her too, right? Don't do that. Loh tikach ha'eim al ha'banim – do not take the mother as she hovers over her young, send her away and then take the eggs. Why? Because it's a desecration of motherhood.
Honoring a Mother's Love and Protection for Her ChildLet me explain. When G-d first created the earth human beings could only eat vegetation, then later on G-d says, you know what, you can eat animals too, but there are restrictions. One natural restriction is that G-d gave animals various abilities to evade predators. For a bird, that ability is flight. Its wings protect it. In effect G-d said when it comes to birds you can have as many birds as you can catch, but I'm going to give the birds wings, you're not going to be able to catch that many of them.
So what is the Torah saying in this week's parsha? Let's look at the situation. There's a bird's nest, there's eggs, there's chicks, there's a mother bird. The eggs, the eggs you have a right to, G-d gave humans the ability to consume animal products, even animals themselves. But the mother, what's the only reason you'd be able to capture that mother? She has wings, she can fly away; it's because she's protecting her young and she won't fly away.
You're using her own maternal instincts against her. It's like there's a trap here and the bait in the trap is nothing but the mother's own maternal instincts. You're using the maternal instinct itself against her. That's a desecration of motherhood, don't do it. Let the mother bird go free, you don't really have a right to catch her.
What the Bible Says About Mothers and Living a Long LifeHere I think is where you get to the most amazing insight in the world as to what it means to honor your mother. Because what exactly is the idea here with the mother bird? It's that a mother will do anything for her young, will even sacrifice herself for her young and we are commanded to honor that, not to turn a mother's own instinct against her.
Well that's not just true for the mother bird, that's true for your own mother too. Your own mother will do anything for you. Yes, she has expectations for you, yes, she has hopes for you; but at the end of the day if you do not rise to her expectations and even if you disregard her hopes she will still love you because you are her child.
Do not desecrate that love and take advantage of it. That love, that parental love, is intended to help you grow; do not take that love and use it as a trap that you set against her, where you take and you take all of that love and you give nothing in return. Honor your parents.
And if you do, and if you send away the mother bird, you will find that in venerating motherhood, the source of all life, your own life will be strengthened. You may well find that you yourself will live a long, healthy life. It's only fitting that you show deference to the source of all life. Have a good Shabbat.
Hey, it's Rabbi Fohrman again, thanks for watching this video. If you have comments, thoughts, questions, observations, feedback, I would love to hear about it. Just comment in our little comments section below. I don't get a chance to respond to all of them, but I do like reading them and will actually respond now and then. So have a great Shabbos, look forward to hearing what you have to say.