The Benefit Of A Mitzvah


‘If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest … and the mother is sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother with her young. Send away the mother, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well, and have length of days” [Deuteronomy 22:6-7].

Honor your father and your mother in order that you may have length of days [Exodus 20:12].

These two commandments are the only two in the Torah whose reward (s’char) is explicitly stated. Why, and what, exactly, does “length of days” mean?

We often act for a goal, payment or purpose. Other times, more natural acts, such as breathing, eating or sleeping, are done because we are human beings. For many, it is equally natural to want to gain knowledge, love others or pursue moral ideals.

What about doing mitzvot? Do we do them for payment or because mitzvot are the fullest expression of who we are? Or both? There is no one answer. In understanding what doing mitzvot is all about, one size does not fit all.

That doing other mitzvot might have rewards of their own suggests a beneficial consequence. How we think about these benefits changes with time. As children, we might expect that doing mitzvot will protect us from harm and give us things that will please us. As we grow older, we come to see doing mitzvot as making us “good people.” At some point, doing mitzvot comes to be seen as building the kind of personal character or society that significantly aids us, supporting other people, even sustaining the world as a whole.

Rashi, basing himself on the Talmud [Chullin 162b], suggests that giving a motivating reason for sending away the mother bird is to teach us that if we are rewarded with a long and good life for fulfilling such an easy mitzvah, then how much more so for a demanding mitzvah? Nachmanides sees sending away the mother bird as guiding us away from insensitivity and brutality. Seforno sees it as protecting an animal species.

All these approaches encourage a kind of calculation. The question remains, why is it only these two mitzvot that have their reward given explicitly?

The Midrash [Devarim Rabbah 6:2] suggests that God deliberately specifies the reward for these two mitzvot so we would not focus on doing the difficult mitzvot because their reward is presumably greater while ignoring the easier ones because their reward is presumably less. God wanted, or needed, all mitzvot to be fulfilled. The same would be true of fulfilling only those mitzvot with seemingly greater social benefits.

Perhaps at the highest level of spiritual development we are not supposed to think of reward at all. In Pirkei Avot 1:3 we read: “Be not like servants who serve the master on the condition of receiving a reward…” In Pirkei Avot 4:2 we read: “The reward for a mitzvah is another mitzvah.”

Perhaps there is a spiritual level on which we perform mitzvot because our souls are always aspiring to what is higher and transcendent; doing mitzvot is an expression of who we truly are.

Many of us strive to transcend the limits of our “here and now” ego in search of a self that is more profoundly human, more profoundly spiritual. In this way, life becomes more than a mere series of days whose value is calculated by pleasure or pain, loss or gain, cost or benefit. Rather, life becomes a story in which we have a purpose.

We have a spiritual role to play and each new day reveals to us new opportunities for discovering a more profound aspect of our reality.

The spiritual reward of “length of days” is that the longer we live the more we find that “no place is empty of God.” Through the practice of mitzvot we discover and express the reality that to be human is to find what is spiritual all around us.

Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard is professor of Jewish law at Humboldt University in Berlin and Jewish scholar-in-residence at Fordham Law School, where he also teaches Jewish law.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 7:22 p.m.

Torah: Deut. 21:10-25:19

Haftarah: Isaiah 44:1-10

Havdalah: 8:21 p.m.