“If, along the the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the 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 rabbis refer to this famous passage from our parashah as the mitzvah of shiluah ha-kein, sending away the mother bird. Apparently, there is great power associated with this mitzvah, for the Torah seems to promise a long and prosperous life for those who perform it.
Apparently, though, some rabbis didn’t read the Torah’s guarantee quite so literally. Rabbi Ya’akov, living late in the 3rd century C.E. in the Land of Israel, seemed to understand Biblical promises of reward in more expansive terms. “There is not a single mitzvah written in the Torah whose reward is stated side by side with it which is not dependent on the Resurrection of the Dead’ (Bavli Kiddushin 39b). In other words, says Rabbi Yaakov, whenever the Torah promises us long life, it’s not referring to this life, but some other, future, life.
Is this really what the Torah means? Rabbi Yaakov seems to be taking quite a bit of liberty with the Torah’s words. Why would he do this? Did something happen in Rabbi Yaakov’s life that inspired him to interpret the Torah so radically?
This coming Shabbat is September 10; the following day, the entire nation will commemorate the 10th anniversary of the horrors of 9/11/01. Many wonderful people’s lives were cut short. This past week, our shul community suffered a painful loss, as one of our active members whose life was steeped in mitzvot died long before achieving length of days. As we struggle with these memories, distant and recent, we will look closely at the comments of Rabbi Yaakov in the Talmud. In so doing, we will continue the eternal conversation of all people of faith as we look for answers to the most unanswerable question: why do good people suffer?