There are only two places in the whole Torah where a reward is given for following a commandment. In one place, it deals with the precept of honoring one’s parents:
Honor your father and your mother, that you may long endure on the landthat the LORD your God is assigning to you (Ex 20:12).
The other deals with the importance of not taking a mother bird with her young:
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 (Dt. 22:6-7)
Looking back, our ancient Rabbis asked an obvious question: how is it that of all the 613 commandments in the Torah, it was only these two that spoke of reward? What could they possibly have in common that would give both laws this distinction?
The answer is found in a comment of Enoch Zundel ben Joseph (died 1867), known as the Etiz Yosef in his commentary on Midrash Tanchuma. He acknowledges that there are indeed many rewards for living an ethical and good life. Our tradition ties all kinds of benefit to earning merit like wealth, prosperity, good crops, or rain. Thus the question shouldn’t be “why are these the only laws with a reward” but rather “why are these the only two laws where the reward is specifically mentioned?” He answers:
This does not mean to say that the reward for each commandment is stated explicitly, for the only rewards stated explicitly are for the two commandments mentioned...The meaning is that since the reward for the easiest commandment, namely, sending away the mother bird, is mentioned explicitly, and the reward for the most difficult commandment, namely, honoring one’s parents, is also mentioned explicitly, we can infer from these two commandments how great the reward for the other commandments, although the reward is not mentioned explicitly (on Midrash Tanchuma Ki Tetzei 2).
Here the Etiz Yosef makes two points. First, by not mentioning a reward for 611 of the commandments, it many makes the act of fulfilling the majority of the commandments more meritorious; one does them because God asked, not because one expects a prize.
However his other point is perhaps more profound. In his view, by only mentioned two commands, honoring one’s parents and sending away the mother bird, the Torah employs a literary device known as a merism. We’ve all seen this device in action. It is when two words contrast and implicitly describe a totality. Examples include: near and far, body and soul, alpha and omega. In the first case, near and far also describe everything in between.
For him, honoring parents is the hardest of all commandments to perform while sending away a mother bird is the easiest. That means that everything in found within these poles, the medium, the moderately challenging, the kinda difficult, all matter as well.
However, if the Etiz Yosef is correct, then perhaps there is something even more profound at play.
In an earlier post I spoke about the challenge of honoring one’s parents appropriately. And when one thinks about it, it is indeed a challenging mitzvah to get right. But what makes the mitzvah of sending away the mother bird so easy?
The answer is that it is done with a flick of the wrist. If you are going to expend the effort to get a ladder or climb a tree, it’s not much more work to make noise or wave one’s hands. Yet, few of us do it. Instead, the Torah warns us, we are apt to rush into taking our next meal without thinking of the repercussions.
So, in fact, the ease of the commandment is actually it’s downfall. It is precisely because we could do it without thinking, that we often overlook the act. The Torah then, has to remind us that it’s worth remembering to do this act by reminding us of the reward that it carries.
Each of us runs the risk of forgetting the simplest tasks in life because they are so easy and fleeting: smiling at strangers, the simple thank yous, the compassionate glance. Yet, these matter as much as the big things and they too carry a reward alongside every other act.
Sending the mother bird away becomes a training ground for us to remember that actions that may seem small are not unimportant. Our job, is in fact, to sweat the small stuff.