Skip to content

Parashat Ki Tetze 5772 – 08/29/2012

Parashat Ki Tetze

Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

If a bird’s nest happens to be before you on the road, on any tree or on the ground, young birds or eggs, and the mother is roosting on the young birds or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young.  You shall surely send away the mother and take the young for yourself, so that it will be good for you and you will prolong your days.  (22:6-7)

But an ox or a sheep, you may not slaughter it and its offspring on the same day (Vayikra 23:4)

[A prayer leader] who says, “Your mercy extends even to a bird’s nest” is silenced! (Berachot 33b; Megillah 25a)

If you were righteous, what have you given Him, or what has He received from your hand? (Iyov 35:7)

Of what concern is it to the Holy One, Blessed is He, if you slaughter an animal [according to the laws of kashrut] or stab it and eat it?! (Tanchuma Shemini §8)

Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true! (Elvis Presley)

It is indicative of the profundity of Torah, and the profundity with which the Sages of our tradition read Torah, that a seemingly simple and innocent commandment like the “bird’s nest” can give us insights into the fundamental structures of Creation, and the fundamental questions of our existence.

Ramban, in a long discourse on our verses, considers the question of the purpose of the commandments.  He begins with a couple of “practical” rationales, one emotional and one material:

This, too, is an elaborated commandment, being an extension of the commandment, But an ox or a sheep, you may not slaughter it and its offspring on the same day (Leviticus 22:28), for the reason for both [commandments] is that we should not have a cruel heart and lack compassion.  Alternatively, the common rationale for the two commandments is that Scripture does not permit us to do an act of large-scale destruction that might lead to the uprooting of an entire species,  even though [Scripture] did permit slaughter of individual animals.  For one who kills the mother and the offspring on the same day, in violation of the verse in Leviticus, or takes both mother and chicks when “they have freedom to fly,” in violation of our verse, is as if he is causing destruction within that species. (Ramban ad loc, Artscroll’s translation)

The material rationale, to prevent the destruction of an entire species, is reflected also in the Torah prohibitions of crossbreeding animals and plants, to maintain distinct boundaries between the different “kinds” created by Gd.  And the underlying rationale behind this is that Gd created all of creation as an integrated whole; human beings certainly have to act in creation, as that is why we were given free will, but messing with the boundaries Gd has set for us is treading in very fraught and uncertain territory.

When we turn to the “spiritual” rationale we come to perhaps a more fundamental point.  Ramban indicates that this mitzvah‘s purpose is to engender a spirit of compassion within us.  He extends this to all the mitzvot of Torah, positing that Gd gave us the mitzvot in order to purify and refine our characters.

Now this issue of the purpose of the mitzvot is actually discussed in the Rabbinic literature, where there is disagreement whether or not there actually are humanly-discernable reasons for the mitzvot at all, or if they are simply “decrees of the King” that we are obliged to honor, whether or not they are comprehensible.  Those espousing the view that the mitzvot are pure decrees point to the fact that Gd is infinite and unchanging, and therefore is not at all affected by anything that happens in the material world, or for that matter in any part of creation, no matter how subtle, as the quote from Iyov (Job) indicates (the speaker is Elihu, who uses this argument to penetrate Iyov’s self-justification).  Thus Gd has no need for any human being’s service, no matter how sublime; after all, Gd has no need for anything.  Furthermore, Gd is beyond any emotion; if we describe Gd as being merciful and compassionate, or zealous and angry, those are only projections of our own finite terms on an infinite reality, so that we may begin to have a glimmer of understanding of Gd through his actions, as we read in the piyut (liturgical hymn) Anim Z’mirot: They allegorized You, but not according to Your reality / They protrayed You according to Your deeds.  In other words, we cannot know Gd’s essence, we can only use our relatively weak powers to project our own categories on Him based on the way He interacts with the finite creation.

It seems to me that Ramban, in part following Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed), turns this argument on its head.  Granted the mitzvot do not do anything for Gd, for Gd is without lack.  Yet Gd did give us these mitzvot, and we assume that Gd does not act arbitrarily, hence the purpose of the mitzvot must have to do with us.  Thus Ramban states that the purpose of the mitzvot is to refine and purify us, as well as to reward us for fulfilling them.  Since the ultimate reward for the mitzvot is closeness with Gd, and since it requires a perfectly refined soul to maintain closeness with Gd (drawing close to Gd’s infinite light while still harboring impurities in the soul is quite dangerous in fact, as Nadav and Avihu found out), one could argue that the refinement and the reward are two sides of the same coin, rather than two separate issues.

Now Gd has given human beings intelligence, and we are permitted to use that intelligence to seek out reasons for the mitzvot, but this must be done in a spirit of humility and with an understanding of the limitations of human intelligence.  Our tradition gives two examples of the dangers involved.  King Solomon was held to be the wisest man who ever lived, yet when it came to two of the mitzvot where Torah actually does give explicit reasons, he stumbled.  Torah forbids a king from having too many horses, lest he become overly involved with Egypt (the source of horses in those days), and also forbids a king from having too many wives, lest they turn his heart away from Torah.  Solomon violated both these prohibitions, got involved with Pharaoh, married Pharaoh’s daughter, and tolerated idolatry among his harem.  The results were disastrous.  He died early, traditionally at age 52.  His son, Rehoboam, was stubborn and stupid and as a result lost the 10 northern tribes who split off and formed their own kingdom.  And the Midrash tells us that on the day he married Pharaoh’s daughter the angel Gabriel planted a reed in the sea, around which land formed that eventually became the site of the city of Rome, whose empire would destroy the Second Temple and exile us from our Land, in which exile we suffer to this day.

In the Talmud, Elisha ben Abuyah, one of the great R. Meir’s teachers, stumbled in the matter of the mitzvah of the bird’s nest.  He saw a father tell his son to climb a tree and retrieve a nest after chasing away the mother bird.  Honoring parents and sending away the mother bird are both supposed to be rewarded with long life.  The child climbed the tree, sent away the mother bird, and promptly fell out of the tree to his death.  Elisha observed this and threw off Judaism altogether saying, “There is no justice and there is no Judge.”  While this story speaks more to the reward of mitzvot than their reasons, the lesson, that our limited intellect and understanding cannot be relied upon in the ultimate sense, is the same.

Even if we say that the reason for the mitzvot is to refine and perfect our souls, that still just pushes back the question, of what good is it to Gd if our souls are refined and purified?  Just as our mitzvah performance per se does not affect Gd, so our refined thinking and harmonious behavior presumably do not affect Him either!  What is the result of this refinement of our souls?  As our mind and spirit get more and more purified, we begin to see Gd at work in our lives and in all the activity of creation.  It is as if the cloak of materiality that hides Gd from our perception becomes more and more diaphonous and we can perceive the spiritual essence of all of creation.  According to the tradition, this recognition of Gd by human beings gives Gd great pleasure, as it were, for having people achieve this state of consciousness is actually the purpose of Gd’s having created us to begin with.  All the world’s a stage the Bard tells us, and in fact, the whole creation is a stage that presents each of us with tests and challenges that force us to grow and expand our minds and hearts.  This growth happens on an individual level throughout our life, and, on the level of society, it happens throughout history.  Its ultimate fulfillment will be in the Messianic Era, when nobody will have to tell his friend to know Gd, for everyone will know Gd (cf. Jeremiah 31:34), but on the individual level we can experience this expansion personally as well.  This perception of Gd is infinitely fulfilling to the individual soul.  Perhaps we could say that in this intimate relationship between creature and Creator, Gd finds fulfillment as well.


Pirke Avot, Chapters 1-2

Rosh HaShanah is less than three weeks away!  The month of Elul is a time for introspection, prayer and preparation for the awesome days of judgment before us.  These last three weeks we’ll also be doubling up our study of Pirke Avot.

Chapter 2, Mishnah 7

Also he [Hillel] saw a skull floating on the face of the water.  He said to it: Because you drowned others you were drowned.  And in the end, those who drowned you will themselves drown.

On the surface, a simple statement of the law of karma – what goes around, comes around.  (Of course Hillel was quite aware that not every action-reaction comes so neatly packaged!)  R. Lau comments:

Why does Gd repay evil measure for measure? 

The answer is that Gd intends to arouse a sinner and onlookers to repent. … The form of Gd’s punishment comprises a direct message to a person; he gains a message from the Divine every day, almost every minute, as to his spiritual state. … A person who knows this uses every incident as a torch with which to examine his inner being. 

Gd is the only One Who punishes with the sole intent of improving, healing, teaching and awakening.


It is Gd’s fervent desire that all people come to know Him, to experience the infinite bliss of an intimate relationship with the Creator.  But every sin that we commit blocks a specific channel of perception or action, that must be cleared in order for that relationship to grow and flourish.  Apparently clearing a channel requires, or perhaps causes, an experience similar to the experience that caused the blockage to begin with.  That is, as a particular blockage clears out, one re-experiences as it were the experience that created the blockage.  But the trick is to recognize that this experience is not random – rather it is perfectly calibrated to cause us to change into someone who will not repeat the original behavior.  It’s best not to make mistakes, but if we do make mistakes, Gd is there to teach us what they were, and to strengthen us to do better next time.