- 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 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)
- When you make a loan of any sort to your neighbor, you must not enter his house to seize his pledge. You must remain outside, while the man to whom you made the loan brings the pledge out to you. If he is a needy man, you shall not go to sleep in his pledge; you must return the pledge to him at sundown, that he may sleep in his cloth and bless you; and it will be to your merit before Adonai your God. (Deuteronomy 24:10-13)
- You must have completely honest weights and completely honest measures, if you are to endure long on the soil that Adonai your God is giving you. (Deuteronomy 25:15)
In reflecting on the growing number of reality-based television shows, it appears that people will do almost anything for a reward-from spending months on an abandoned island to living for weeks in a house with complete strangers and cameras continually upon them. Monetary rewards motivate scores of individuals to make themselves vulnerable in front of millions of viewers.
In contrast, Judaism teaches that our actions are not to be driven by the prospect of a prize. The majority of mitzvot in our Torah are given without a reason and without a reward. Ki Teitzei is no exception. This parashah includes seventy-two mitzvot yet rarely states what the reward is for fulfilling a commandment. The few cases in which a reward is promised, however, can teach us important lessons.
The Torah states that if we come upon a nest holding a mother and her eggs, we must have compassion and send away the mother before taking her brood. If we do so, we will be blessed with prosperity and longevity of life. Rashi teaches that kindness to these small creatures is an easy commandment because it involves no monetary loss and requires no preparation.
A similar reward is promised earlier in Deuteronomy for what the rabbis deem the most difficult of commandments. If we honor our parents, our reward will also be length of days and prosperity. Honoring our parents, like honoring God, is a job without end, a commandment that places perpetual and heavy demands upon us.
In our Torah, physical rewards are promised for those who fulfill the least onerous as well as the most demanding of the commandments. Yet what about all the commandments in between? What are the rewards for fulfilling them?
The rabbis do state that there is a reward for fulfilling each of the commandments, but we are warned against performing them on the basis of their possible payback. As Pirkei Avot 2:1 cautions, "Be as careful in the performance of minor commandments as a major commandment, since you do not know the reward for any of the commandments."
Even the Chasidim of later years criticized those who seek a return on their righteous acts. "The Dubner Maggid [Jacob Ben Wolf Kranz] told the story of a father who complained to a neighbor that his son was ill and would not eat his meals. The neighbor visited the boy and offered him a toy if he would eat. The boy consumed a considerable portion of food. When the neighbor told the father of his trick, the father commented: 'What you tell me only confirms my anxiety for my son's health. If he were really healthy, he would eat to satisfy his appetite, not because he was eager for a toy.' From this tale, the Chasid taught, 'One who does mitzvot in the name of gaining a reward is spiritually ill' " (as told by Rabbi Chaim Stern, Day by Day [Boston: Beacon Press, 1998]).
Performing mitzvot is rewarding whether we seek out those returns or not. It is those rewards that continually draw us back to our religious lives. Perhaps the Chasid's caution reflects the ambition for material rather than spiritual gains.
We also find in this parashah intangible incentives for doing mitzvot. We are told that when someone comes to us for a loan and gives us an essential item as a pledge, we must return it to them at their time of need. If we do so, that impoverished soul will bless us. Our mitzvot can earn us the gratitude, blessing, or praise of others.
Ki Teitzei likewise pledges that when we are ethical in business and use honest weights we will "long endure." Ibn Ezra teaches that this is a promise not to individuals but to the community at large. "Justice is like a building and injustice is like cracks that cause a building to fall" (as translated by Jeffrey Tigay, The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996). Performing mitzvot can bring the reward of sustaining our society.
Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf compares the mitzvot to jewels: "I try to walk the road of Judaism. Embedded in that road there are many jewels. One is marked 'Sabbath' and one 'Civil Rights' and one 'Kashruth' and one 'Honor Your Parents' and one 'You Shall Be Holy.' There are at least 613 of them and they are different shapes and sizes and weights. Some are light and easy for me to pick up, and I pick them up. Some are too deeply embedded for me, so far at least, though I get a little stronger by trying to extricate the jewels as I walk the street. Some, perhaps, I shall never be able to pick up. I believe that God expects me to keep on walking Judaism Street and to carry away whatever I can of its commandments. I do not believe that God expects me to lift what I cannot, nor may I condemn my fellow Jew who may not be able to pick up even as much as I can" (Arnold Jacob Wolf, The Condition of Jewish Belief: A Symposium, compiled by the editors of Commentary Magazine [New York: Macmillan, 1966] p. 268).
Performing mitzvot brings rewards to our lives. These religious actions can bring us a sense of blessing, of healing, and of connection. Ki Teitzei contains more commandments than any other portion, and with it comes the greatest potential for the richest rewards.
By the Way...
A king hired laborers and brought them into his garden without disclosing what he intended to pay for the various kinds of work, lest they should neglect the work for which the pay was little for work for which the pay was high. In the evening the king called each one and asked him: "At which tree have you worked?" He replied: "At this one." Thereupon the king said to him: "This is a pepper tree and the pay for working at it is one golden piece." ?He then called another and asked him: "At which tree have you worked?" And he replied "At this one." Whereupon the king exclaimed: "This is an olive tree and the pay for working at it is 200 zuz." Said the laborers to the king: "You should have informed us from the outset which tree had the greater pay attached to it, so that we might have worked at it." The king replied: "Had I done this, how would the whole of my garden have been worked?" So God did not reveal the reward of the precepts, except of two, the weightiest and the least weighty. The honoring of parents is the very weightiest . . . and the sending away of the mother bird is the least weighty. (D'varim Rabbah 6:2)
- Do you believe that there is a reward from God for fulfilling the mitzvot? If so, what are those rewards?
- In your opinion, which mitzvot are easy, and which are hard? Do the personal rewards you receive increase with the challenges of fulfilling a given mitzvah?
Judith Schindler is a rabbi at Temple Beth El in Charlotte, North Carolina.