Parshat Ki Tetze: Is there a spiritual reason for investigating the reasons and origins of the commandments?

In today’s world, the concepts of “faithfulness” and “responsibility” should replace the concept of “commitment”. A faithful person is one who both has faith and in whom faith can be placed, and if responsibility is entrusted to someone, we can infer that that person is worthy of that responsibility.

Rivki Yisraeli is the Educational Director of OTS’s Neveh Channah High School for Girls, in memory of Anna Ehrman


One of the interesting commandments discussed in this week’s parsha is the mitzva of shiluach haken, “the sending of the nest”. Jewish sages and many commentators had analyzed this commandment in depth, from various philosophical and halakhic standpoints. One of the fundamental questions that emerge from studying this commandment is whether or not the commandments have rationales behind them, and whether there is any reason to seek out these rationales.

Commenting on the rationale for the commandment of “the sending of the nest”, in which we are commanded to send a mother bird away from her nest before taking her offspring, Maimonides writes, in chapter 48 of The Guide to the Perplexed: “It is also prohibited to kill an animal with its young on the same day… for the pain of the animals under such circumstances is very great. There is no difference in this case between the pain of man and the pain of other living beings… The same rationale applies to the law which enjoins that we should let the mother fly away when we take the young… If the Law provides that such grief should not be caused to cattle or birds, how much more careful must we be that we should not cause grief to our fellowmen.” In other words, according to Maimonides, the rationale for this commandment is to prevent animals from suffering. We may not take the eggs or chicks while the mother bird is in the nest, so that we don’t cause the mother distress.

We can now assess what we deduce from this precept: if the Torah takes such careful measures to avoid distressing animals, it follows that we mustn’t cause other human beings distress.

Nahmanides disagrees with Maimonides’ assertion, and offers a different reason for the commandment in his Commentary on the Torah, chapter 22:

And we are also told by our sages (in Tractate Brachot of the Babylonian Talmud, page 33b): ‘this was because he transforms the attributes of the Holy One, Blessed be He, into expressions of mercy, when they are nothing but decrees,’ meaning that Hashem does not have mercy over the bird’s nest… as His mercy does not extend to creatures with an animal soul, to prevent us from doing what we need to them. If it were it so, slaughtering would be forbidden. But [rather], the reason for the proscription is to teach us the trait of mercy, so that we do not become cruel.

Here, we see that these commandments concerning our treatment of birds and beasts have nothing to do with mercy. Rather, they are decrees that were imposed on us, which are meant to guide us and teach us character traits. And so [too] all of the commandments – positive and negative – are called decrees…”

Nahmanides claims that the purpose of the commandments is not to prevent animals from suffering, but rather to imbue human beings with the quality of mercy.

The question regarding the rationale for the commandment of the “sending of the nest” is part of a much broader question: are there rationales for the commandments, and is it proper for us to try to look into these rationales? This question is one that our sages have grappled with throughout our history, from the time of our earliest sages to the rishonim, and later, the acharonim.  There are those who were very supportive of this scholarly pursuit, while others were opposed.

In Hilchot Meila, chapter eight, halacha 8, Maimonides writes:

“One ought to consider the laws of the Torah and to penetrate into their ultimate significance as much as he can. If, however, he cannot discover the reason and is ignorant of the basic cause of a law, he should not regard it with contempt…”

According to Maimonides, there is a religious value to investigating the reasons for the commandments. A person who does so elucidates the spiritual and ethical foundations of the worship of Hashem and performs the commandments with greater dedication and enthusiasm.

However, other sages were fearful of the study of the rationales for the commandments. The Talmud, in Tractate Sanhedrim 21a, states:

For what reason were the rationales of Torah commandments not revealed? It was because the rationales of two verses were revealed, and the greatest in the world, King Solomon, failed in those matters. It is written with regard to a king: “He shall not add many wives for himself, that his heart should not turn away”. Solomon said: I will add many, but I will not turn away, as he thought that it is permitted to have many wives if one is otherwise meticulous not to stray. And later, it is written: “For it came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods”. And it is also written: “Only he shall not accumulate many horses for himself nor return the people to Egypt for the sake of accumulating horses”, and Solomon said: I will accumulate many, but I will not return. And it is written: “And a chariot came up and went out of Egypt for six hundred shekels of silver”.

Here, our sages remind us of the danger of undermining one’s commitment to observing the commandments. When the rationale of a particular commandment is revealed, there is real concern that people will tend to take that commandment lightly, or to change it as they see fit. Besides, even if a person doesn’t actually become less observant of the commandments, he or she might be led to observing the commandment solely because he or she identifies with it and with its rationale, and not because of a commitment to God.

Our sages formulated this precept rather admirably in a Midrash that appears in Sifra on Leviticus 20, verse 26:

Elazar b. Azaryah says: Whence is it derived that a man should not say: I do not desire to wear sha’atnez (a garment with mixed fibers of wool and linen); I do not desire to eat the flesh of a pig; I do not desire to cohabit with ervah (illicit relations). I do desire it, but what can I do? My Father in heaven has decreed against it! — From “and I have set you apart from the peoples to be unto Me.” It is found, then, that he separates from ervah because he accepted upon himself the Kingdom of heaven.

The issue of our “commitment” to observing the commandments versus our desire to “connect” is one that today’s youth grapple with constantly. These young adults sincerely wish to express their unique personalities in their worship of Hashem. They are seeking their personal religious identity, refusing to suffice with a collective religious identity. When words like “authority” and “commitment” are used when speaking to them, they become closed off, because they identify such concepts with things like “coercion” and “the negation of personal freedoms. Positive things can also be found in this pursuit, like a greater will to worship Hashem in a more meaningful, spiritual, and tangible way, stemming from an internal desire and willingness. There is clearly something noble about this. However, as the Maharal points out in Tiferet Yisrael, chapter 32,

“… but [what is the reason that] the mountain had imposed [the Torah] on them, so that the people of Israel wouldn’t say ‘we accepted the Torah out of our own free will, for if we hadn’t willed it, we would never have accepted the Torah’. This is not the virtue of the Torah. It is not proper for the Torah to have been accepted through the free will of the people of Israel, but rather, [it would be more proper] that the Holy One, Blessed Be He would force and coerce them to accept the Torah, for there is no other way to prevent the world from reverting to disarray”

In other words, acceptance of the Torah based solely on free will, without any coercion, is flawed. Life would be unimaginable without the concept of accepting the authority of others and toiling to do things even if they are difficult, and even if they don’t suit a person at a particular moment, in their particular setting.

Rabbi Yehuda Amital z”l, spoke at length about the need to educate others while imbuing a sense of commitment.  In one of his lessons, he said that he wanted to replace the concept of “commitment” with the concepts of “faithfulness” and “responsibility.”

The concept of “faithfulness” lacks negative connotations. On the contrary, it’s something we can take pride in. A loyal person is one who both has faith and in whom faith can be placed. The divine name of HAVAYA is one that alludes to loyalty. In our prayers, we say: “and you are faithful, to raise the dead”. Therefore, even a person who believes in Hashem and treads down his path is called a “faithful man” (according to Proverbs, chapter 20, verse 6: “He calls many a man his faithful friend, But who can find a faithful man?”). As the Maharal explains, “… so that there should be faith in the Holy One, and that there should be faith in one who is faithful in all of his deeds and actions.”

Another concept that Rabbi Amital proposes to elevate is the concept of “responsibility.” This is a concept that leads to satisfaction. If a person is entrusted with responsibility, we can understand that this person is worthy of bearing this responsibility. Every individual can take responsibility, while expressing his or her unique, personal angle. However, each of us must also seek out and find ways to take responsibility for ourselves, for our families, for our communities, and for the entire Jewish community.

These days, we must elevate and place an emphasis on these two concepts – faithfulness and responsibility.


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