Rabbi Steinsaltz examines the diverse mitzvot found in this parasha and finds that their peculiarities, mystifying jumps in significance and moral contradictions overwhelm attempts to systematize and reduce them to a few ethical principles and categories.
Parents should not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents; a person shall be put to death only for his own crime.
No one misbegotten [a child of adultery] shall be admitted into the congregation of the LORD; none of his descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall be admitted into the congregation of the LORD.
Parents and children are not responsible for each other crimes in 24:16, yet the adultery of the parents taints the children even to the tenth generation in 23:3. Particular ethnicities — the Ammonites, Moabites, and Amalekites are affected by the sins of a previous generation.
You shall not wear cloth combining wool and linen.
There are many verses which deal with life and death issues, rape, cruelty to animals and yet also fabric design.
If, along 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 in 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.
MISHNA: This mishna speaks of certain innovations in the [Amidah] prayer formula that warrant the silencing of a communal prayer leader who attempts to introduce them in his prayers, as their content tends toward heresy. One who recites in his supplication: Just as Your mercy is extended to a bird’s nest, as You commanded us to send away the mother before her chicks or eggs, so too extend Your mercy to us; and one who recites: May Your name be mentioned with the good or one who recites: We give thanks, we give thanks twice, they silence him.
GEMARA: Our mishna cited three instances where the communal prayer leader is silenced. The Gemara clarifies: Granted, they silence one who repeats: We give thanks, we give thanks, as it appears he is acknowledging and praying to two authorities. And granted they also silence one who says: May Your name be mentioned with the good, as clearly he is thanking God only for the good and not for the bad, and we learned in a mishna: One is required to bless God for the bad just as he blesses Him for the good. However, in the case of one who recites: Just as Your mercy is extended to a bird’s nest, why do they silence him?
Two amora’im in Eretz Yisrael disputed this question: Rabbi Yosei bar Avin and Rabbi Yosei bar Zevida; one said that this was because it appears as though he is protesting the fact that the Lord favored one creature over all others. And one said that this was because he transforms the attributes of the Holy One, Blessed be He, into expressions of mercy, when they are nothing but the decrees of the King that must be fulfilled without inquiring into the reasons behind them.
This talmudic discussion is crucial for Rabbi Steinsaltz and Rabbi Leib. Why is it that treating the mitzvah of the mother bird as an attribute of God’s mercy is heretical? Why are the Sages so alarmed? What is wrong with “inquiring into the reasons behind” the mitzvot?
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
The fact that the diverse categories of mitzvot are mixed together in the Torah, and that we are unable to explain the sequence of subjects, teaches us an essential lesson: If we are to receive the Torah, the only way is to accept it as it is. We can receive the Torah only if we accept it with all its various components, because the Torah itself does not differentiate between them or see any difference between them.
In this parasha, precisely because it is replete with various subjects and themes, it is possible to delve into the Torah’s essence. There are very few other places where there is such a mixture of major and minor precepts, more important and less important, daily matters and matters that arise once in a lifetime, as in this parasha. It teaches us that in the Torah there is no such thing as more important and less important mitzvot. The totality of all the mitzvot, in all the different areas, forms a kind of definition of the Torah’s essence. There is a bridge that stretches from here to God …
what is wrong with saying that God’s commands are rooted in mercy? Why must we insist that God’s commands are “merely decrees,” a seemingly arbitrary system?
From here and other places as well, we see that the Torah’s basic structure is not built on bringing people satisfaction. There are mitzvot in which one can experience spiritual exaltation, and there are mitzvot in which one cannot. … One who says, “Your mercies extend to a bird’s nest” tries to show that the Torah is based on human logic, as though the Torah were a book of remedies or a guidebook for life, whose purpose is to teach people how to lead a proper life. But the truth is that God’s commands are indeed merely decrees, and the only way for us to comprehend the Torah is as a bridge between us and God.
When one tries to define and reduce the Torah to one aspect, one is left with only part of the Torah, one that is essentially deficient. Usually, the intention is to give the Torah a human face, a face that can be comprehended in its totality and entirety. However, the Torah is the work of God, and thus cannot be truly be defined in such a way; it cannot be fashioned like a human face.
Our attempt to understand everything and create a unified and complete picture is an attempt to take God, or at least Torah, and make it a simplistic plaything, and that is precisely what the Torah forbids.
And yet the Torah is Instructions. It clearly states in many places that it is a guide to life. How is seeing it as “merely decrees” preferable to seeking moral instruction from it?
What is the moral instruction of not mixing linen and wool?
Rabbi Leib also ponders the statements in Berakhot. For him, the heresy is explaining the mitzvah as caused by God’s attribute of mercy. Rather, he argues, it is the structure of God’s creation — God’s decrees — that enables us to be merciful and compassionate, to even understand, however poorly, mercy and compassion. Does this help explain Rabbi Steinstalz?