The Earth's Reward: Enjoy Its Fruit, but Protect Its Fruitfulness

The Torah teaches us to value human life -- as part of a sustainable world.

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Reprinted with permission from the column “The People and the Book” in The Jerusalem Report, September 11, 2000. This piece is a commentary on the weekly Torah portion “Ki Tetze,” Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19.

The promise is a nice one: “That you may fare well and live long.” The first mystery is, why it is stated as the reward for seemingly unrelated commandments: for honoring one’s father and mother (Exodus 20:12), for using honest weights and measures (Deuteronomy 25:15), and for sending away a mother bird before taking her eggs or fledglings (Deuteronomy 22:6-7). The deeper mystery, perhaps, is why we should believe that fulfilling these commandments will, in fact, result in such a reward. That’s not merely a modern question, as demonstrated by a Talmudic legend.

The Talmud, in Tractate Kiddushin, describes how Elisha Ben Abuya, the famous [second century] rabbi-turned-heretic, might have lost his faith. It presents a scene in which a father instructs his son to gather some eggs from a nest, but to be careful to first let the mother bird go. Performing his father’s request, the boy should be doubly rewarded with length of days: he is honoring his parents and sending off the mother bird. Yet he falls from the tree and dies.

Is the Reward in This World or the Next? To the Doer or Done By? Individual or Species?

Elisha, suggests the Talmud, watched this, presuming that the Biblical promise referred to the quality and length of life of the individual performing the commandments - and concluded that the promise was false, that there was neither Judge nor justice in the world. Others, including his grandson, Rabbi Ya’akov ben Korshai, take the opposite approach: we are to expect no reward whatsoever in this life for following commandments; the rewards and punishments are all in the next life. Those seem to be the only possibilities: either tangible rewards, here and now (for the individual), or ultimate satisfaction (again, for the individual) in the hereafter.

A similar assumption underlies many commentators’ views of the purpose of driving off the mother bird. [The 12th century philosopher and Jewish legal authority] Maimonides, for instance, says it is for the sake of the (individual) animal - the commandment spares the mother the pain of seeing her offspring taken. Others, like [the 13th century Spanish Bible commentator, kabbalist, and talmudist] Nahmanides, claim that the commandment is focused rather on the person, again as an individual: it teaches humane, compassionate behavior.

Yet why limit the discussion to the individual? All three of these commandments are in fact prescriptions for sustaining human society and its place in the natural world.

BerriesBeyond Compassion for/by Individuals: Responsibility for the Ecosystem and the Future

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Jeremy Benstein

Jeremy Benstein is the fellowship director of the Abraham Joshua Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership in Tel Aviv.