Friday, September 16, 2016

Teitzei 5631 Third Ma'amar

Shilu'ach HaKein - Mercy or Decree

In this week’s parsha we find the mitzvah of shilu’ach hakein.[1]  If person comes upon a bird’s nest and wants to eat, he mustn’t take the mother bird thus leaving the chicks to die.  Rather he must take the chicks.  The Torah, in an apparent show of mercy, directs us to first send the mother bird away from the nest before taking its chicks or eggs.  In fact, the first Midrash on our parsha states emphatically that from this mitzvah we see that God is full of mercy towards birds.[2] 

A Mishna[3] in Maseches Brachos though, teaches that we silence one who says, as part of his prayers, that God is merciful and His mercy reaches the bird’s nest since He commanded us to send away the mother before taking the chicks.  Rather, we must view all of God’s commandments as decrees.  Why is this? 

The Sfas Emes explains that even though, in truth, the mitzvos are an expression of God’s mercy, we are nevertheless required to relate to them only as decrees and to fulfill them as a servant who fulfills his master’s instructions.  We silence one who attributes the mitzvah to God’s mercy, even though he speaks the truth, because his words indicate that he performs the mitzvah in order to express God’s mercy rather than to fulfill God’s decree. 

This is a subtle difference.  Indeed, why is it wrong to perform the mitzvah in order to express God’s mercy?  Why must we silence this person?  The reason we silence him, the Chazal explain, is because he makes God’s mitzvos mercy when in fact they really are decrees.[4]  According to this, God’s mitzvos are not an expression of His mercy.  They are in fact decrees that we are required to fulfill without regard to, and perhaps without even knowing, their ultimate reasons. 

This explanation clearly contradicts the Midrash.  To reconcile the Midrash with this Gemara we need to gain a clear understanding of how the mitzvos express God’s will.  Unquestionably, the mitzvos are a manifestation of God’s will.  However, since God is infinite, it follows that every characteristic we can attribute to God is infinite as well.  God’s mercy, for example, is infinite.  The mitzvos, of course, are finite.  How, then, can the finite mitzvos manifest God’s infinite will? 

The answer to this question can be understood from the words the Gemara above uses for mitzvos and decrees, midos and gezeiros respectively.  The word mida also means a measure.  In order to enable us to fulfill His will, God “shrunk” His will, as it were, into measured doses.  These measured doses of God’s will are the Torah and the mitzvos.

Although the source of the mitzvah of shilu’ach hakein is certainly God’s infinite mercy, its physical manifestation in this world is only a representation of God’s mercy.  It is a mida/measured dose.  The Zohar teaches that it is called a gezeira/decree because it is nigzar/cut from God’s infinite mercy but it is not His infinite mercy. 

The one who prays and says that God’s mercy reaches the birds implies that we can understand God’s mercy, but we cannot because it is infinite.  The physical can never completely express any attribute of God.  To say or imply that it does is an unwarranted constriction of the infiniteness of God’s attributes and a dangerous misunderstanding of how they are expressed in the finite physical world.  While we, of course learn mercy from this mitzvah, our approach to performing it and all other mitzvos needs to be as a servant who performs his master’s will regardless of the reason.

[1]Devarim 22:6-7
[2]Devarim R. 6:1
[3]Brachos Mishna 5:3
[4]Brachos 33b

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