Ki Seitzei

D'var Torah by Rabbi Jay Spero


The Commandments:  Merciful or Divine Decree?

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“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 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 prolong your days” (Deut. Ch.22 v.6-7).

The logic behind this commandment appears obvious. Sefer HaChinuch, a 13th century work which explains the commandments, says that G-d’s concern extends to every aspect of creation.

There is, however, a very puzzling statement in the Talmud (tractate Brochos 33b). The Talmud says that if a person, while praying, utters, “even on the bird's nest does Your (G-d’s) mercy reach,” we immediately quiet this person. Why? To prevent us from assuming G-d’s commandments are merciful edicts.

This is a strange statement indeed. In many places the Talmud and the Torah itself call G-d merciful. In fact, the Talmud in tractate Shabbos (133b), implores us to be merciful because G-d is merciful. Why here all of a sudden are we implying He is not?

The answer to this question lies in one of the most fundamental aspects of the Torah: there are good and valid reasons behind every mitsva of the Torah. However, these reasons are absolute, and to man, who thinks more in relative terms, these reasons take time and thought until they are properly understood.

When the Talmud says that a person should not assume the mitsvos are merciful edicts, it is not saying that G-d is not merciful. It is saying that if we call G-d’s edicts merciful, we will tend to ascribe that quality to all the commandments. Those commandments which we are unable to qualify as merciful we will decide, in our great wisdom, do not apply. For example, the laws of slaughtering animals: through one’s limited perspective, one might say animal slaughter is immoral because it lacks mercy. In fact, slaughtering animals is in itself a merciful act because, amongst other reasons, animals are put on the world to serve mankind. When we use animals in such a spiritual way, we are being merciful to the animal (this is a Kabbalistic concept which requires much more space, which we can treat in a future issue). The death penalty is another example of a case where it seems there is no compassion, but the reality is to the contrary.

I would like to stress, however, that while it is forbidden to say, “even on a bird’s nest does G-d’s mercy reach,” this is only true during prayer. To see in one’s own personal relationship with G-d this concept of mercy is not only permitted, but laudable, as G-d is merciful.

This attitude of seeing the Torah from an eternal perspective will help us get closer to G-d, through the observance of mitsvos.

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