by Rabbi Stanley M. Davids, Rabbi Emeritus,
, Atlanta, Georgia, and immediate past President of
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; “The Torah,” JPS Translation).
One of the most controversial scholars of the rabbinic period was R. Elisha ben Abuyah, who was born in Jerusalem shortly after the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. A man of impeccable lineage and of great scholarship, Elisha nevertheless managed to arouse the ire of the rabbinic establishment to such a degree that he has become known down through the ages as “
” – The Other, someone who stood outside of the normative boundaries of rabbinic discourse and decision-making.
Elisha was reported to have been intellectually and spiritually open to the attractions and temptations of the Hellenistic world. He knew Greek and studied Greek philosophy. He enjoyed the pleasures of wine and song. He was a full member of the most respected academies of his day – until he was charged with apostasy, with being in collusion with the “
” – sectarians, with being a dualist, and with reading books forbidden to the Jewish people. In the Talmud Yerushalmi, an episode of Elisha’s life is recorded as follows: “
Four [sages] entered paradise—Ben ‘Azzai, Ben Zoma, Aḥer, and Akiba. Ben ‘Azzai looked and died; Ben Zoma went mad; Aḥer destroyed the plants; Akiba alone came out unhurt
.” (Talmud Hag. 14b). Milton Steinberg expanded this episode into a remarkable novel,
As a Driven Leaf
(Behrman House; 1939).
Whenever causation is sought for Elisha’s supposed apostasy, reference is made to our verses from Deuteronomy 22:6-7. According to a widely repeated Midrash, one day Elisha was walking along and noticed a young boy who had been sent by his parents to gather eggs for a meal. The boy climbed a tree to drive away the mother bird from the nest before he took the eggs. In front of Elisha’s horrified eyes, the boy slipped and fell to his death. Elisha’s faith was ripped apart by this experience: here was a child fulfilling two Mitzvot – honoring his parents and showing concern for a mother bird. Instead of receiving the gift of long life promised by the Torah, the boy died.
Twentieth-century Jewish scholars have been known to refer to Judaism as “a Mitzvah system of salvation” (a description many of us learned from our teacher, Dr. Ellis Rivkin ז”ל). The Mitzvah system offered salvation to those who played by its rules, and thus became the target of Paul and his followers who taught that faith in the resurrected Christ as the Son of God replaced the active fulfillment of Mitzvot as the key to salvation. To Paulinian Christians, Mitzvot were an obstacle to the universality of their message, and showed Judaism to be narrow and outmoded in its teachings. This debate in many ways continues to resonate in our own day.
Whether or not we follow the thoughts of Rabbi Harold Kushner (
Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People
? Random House; 2004), many of us are severely troubled by an apparent lack of connection between who we are, how we act, what we observe – and what becomes of our lives. The technical term for this issue is “theodicy” – questions relating to God’s justice. The Torah, especially in the Book of Deuteronomy, asserts over and over again that a long, good, indeed blessed life awaits those who faithfully fulfill the Divine Commandments. More than 500 years after the Torah was canonized, the rabbis labored long and hard to prove that the ‘long life’ referred to in Deuteronomy actually referred to Life Eternal – that is, our reward will come as promised, but in the next life and not in this one.
It is critically important as Reform Jews for each of us to undertake a serious consideration of the core foundations of our tradition, to try to understand what makes Torah a sacred text for us, and what it means for us to be “commanded” – to light Shabbat candles, to fast on Yom Kippur, to act with loving compassion, to carry out deeds of Tzedakah, to love our neighbor as ourselves. As rationalists who seek an enduring encounter with the sacred and the numinous, as individuals who feel bound together as a people committed to God and to Torah, as liberals who feel empowered to choose the manner in which we are obligated – we need to be able to do more than just say to others who ask us – “Well, that’s just the way I was raised.”
Our Sedra is rich with obligation. It is equally rich with threats and promises. Why is it that we do what we do? To maintain ties with our people? To keep faith with our past? To set a framework within which to raise our children and grandchildren? To craft ourselves into models of faith, of practice and of ethics so that we might play a significant role in transforming our world? Do we structure our acts just so that we can gain that which a text promises – or so that we can outwardly express that to which our heart calls us?
When next we take a walk and come upon a mother bird sitting upon her nest, it might be interesting to try to channel Elisha ben Abuyah, and to contemplate our response to the terror that once confronted him. When next we consider what it means to lead our daily lives as informed and committed Reform Jews, we would do well to ask ourselves why we do the things we do.
May we fare well and have a long life.