Finding the Real G-d

When you come upon a bird’s nest upon the road – in any tree or upon the ground – with chicks or eggs and the mother is sitting upon the chicks or eggs, do not take the mother with the children.  Send forth the mother and the children you may take for yourself.  This is so that it will be good for you and your days will be lengthened.  (Sefer Devarim 22:6-7)

1.  Two commandments restrict harvesting a nest in the presence of the mother bird

The above passages explain that it is prohibited to take the eggs or chicks from a nest before chasing away the mother bird.  First, the mother bird must be chased away from its nest and afterwards the eggs or chicks may be gathered from the nest.

According to Maimonides, these passages include two commandments – a positive and a negative commandment.  The positive commandment directs us to send away the mother and only then take the offspring.  The negative commandment prohibits taking the offspring in the mother’s presence.[1]    The Torah does not provide an explanation for these mitzvot.  A number of interesting suggestions are made by the commentators.  According to Nachmanides, the Torah’s objective is to nurture sensitivity.  Cruelty and insensitivity are demeaning and self-destructive characteristics.  They are discouraged – even when practiced toward animals.

Nachmanides suggests an alternative, fascinating explanation for these mitzvot.  The Torah prohibits us from engaging in behaviors that endanger a species.  We are permitted to eat eggs and chicks.  We are permitted to consume the flesh of adult birds.  However, we must gather these in a manner that preserves the species. Harvesting the eggs or chicks, while capturing the mother, is prohibited because the consistent implementation of such a practice endangers the continuity of the species.[2]

Maimonides point out that the feelings of the mother bird toward her offspring is similar to the love of a human parent for its child.  This attachment is not the product of the human being’s more advanced intellect. The love and attachment stems from the fundamental instincts of the mother – whether animal or human.  We should recognize the suffering that we cause the mother bird when we deprive her of her offspring in her very presence.  Our acknowledgment of her suffering should prompt us to first chase away the mother bird.[3]

2.  Ascribing rationales for commandments

However, both Nachmanides and Maimonides acknowledge that the Sages, in various statements, seem to indicate that it is improper to suggest a reason for these commandments. The mishne states that if one declares that Hashem’s mercy extends to the bird’s nest, we silence him.[4]  The apparent reason for this restriction is that it is not appropriate to assign reasons of our own design to commandments.  If the Torah provides a reason, then it is accepted as true.  When the Torah does not provide an explanation for a commandment, we are to regard the commandment as a Divine decree for which a reason is not required or appropriate.

Nachmanides defends his practice of suggesting explanations for commandments.  He contends that the Sages do not intend to discourage any and all discussion of the rationale for commandments.  Instead, they are establishing parameters for such an investigation and identifying a specific approach that is invalid.  According to the Sages one cannot suggest that commandments fulfill some need of Hashem and that we perform commandments in order to satisfy this Divine need.

For example, we should not assume that Hashem needs our sacrifices. Neither should we assume that Hashem experiences compassion in the human sense – as a need or drive whose imperatives demand obedience.  Hashem is perfect and without the needs or wants that are experienced by human beings.  So, how do we understand the commandments?  All of the mitzvot are designed by Hashem to benefit humanity.  They contribute to the development of virtues such as kindness and charity.  They instill and strengthen within us basic beliefs such as acknowledgment of Hashem’s omnipotence and providence.[5]

In his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides defends his own practice of suggesting reasons for commandments.  He explains that the Sages themselves differ over the appropriateness of such speculations.  The statements by the Sages that discourage this practice reflect the opinion of the camp that regards all commandments as Divine decrees for which no explanation is required or appropriate.  However, other Sages disagree with this position and encourage the investigation into the rationale for commandments.  He – Maimonides – suggests rationales in accordance with this second opinion that rules it permissible to interpret the meaning and objective of mitzvot.[6]

3.  Maimonides’ conflicting rulings

Based on these comments of Maimonides, one would assume that he rejects the position of the Sages prohibiting investigation into the rationale for commandments.  This is not the case.  In his code of Torah law – Mishne Torah – he rules according to this position.  Maimonides quotes the directive of the Sages that one should not include in his supplications to Hashem that His mercy extends even to the nest of the bird and therefore, He commanded us to not take the offspring of the mother bird in her presence. [7]  As this is Maimonides’ ruling, how can he consistently explore the meaning and reason for commandments?

In part, the answer to this question is provided by an additional comment made by Maimonides in stating his ruling.  He adds that the suggestion that Hashem’s mercy is expressed in the commandments regarding the harvesting of the nest is flawed.  These commandments are not demonstrative of Hashem’s mercy extending to the animal kingdom; in fact, the slaughter of animals is completely permitted.[8]

4.  Standards for developing rationales

Apparently, Maimonides contends that it is acceptable and even appropriate to ascribe reasons to commandments.  His ruling in his code does not contradict this position.  Maimonides requires we develop these rationales through a thorough, rigorous process of investigation and that our conclusions should be carefully formulated.

However, it is very important to note that Maimonides’ emphasis upon the importance of carefully formulating any rationale is stated in the context of prayer.  If it is essential that any suggested rationale be carefully considered and formulated, then this requirement applies whether the rationale is suggested by a teacher in a lecture or a petitioner in his supplications.   Yet, Maimonides states this consideration specifically in the context of prayer.

5.  The personal and the objective elements of prayer

The resolution to this paradox perhaps lays in a clearer understanding of prayer. Prayer has both a personal and an objective element.  Prayer is deeply personal.  Prayer is not merely the mechanical recitation of a set of ancient formulas.  It is a personal encounter with Hashem.  The petitioner is expressing his innermost needs and desires.

Prayer also has an objective element.  The petitioner should not reach out to the Hashem of his imagination.  He must strive to discover and encounter the true G-d.  This is a very difficult task.  It is made even more difficult because prayer is a deeply personal experience.  Human nature drives us to imagine Hashem.  We may imagine Him as a compassionate parent or as a kind, elder ruler. Our dialogue with Hashem may include an image of a wise and benevolent king on His glorious throne.  These are products of our imagination.  Our attribution of imagery to Hashem is a product or consequence of our personal involvement in prayer.  The more we become personally engrossed in our encounter with Hashem, the more compelled we become to imagine Hashem.

We are naive if we believe that we can eliminate this imaginative imagery and advance beyond it by a mere act of will.  It takes time, study, and practice to shed the images of our imagination and to direct our prayers to a G-d devoid of image. We should strive to improve our encounter with Hashem but recognize that improvement occurs over time.

Although we may be temporarily trapped by the limits of our concept of Hashem,  we should be careful not to reinforce our imaginative constructs of Hashem.  We should not add to our prayers phrases and descriptions that reinforce our images of Hashem.

This is perhaps Maimonides’ message.  We are free to speculate on the reasons for commandments.  However, we must be leery of including our speculations in our prayers.  Our prayers should describe Hashem as he is presented by the Torah.  We should not add additional descriptions based upon our own speculations lest we distort our understanding of Hashem.

We should strive to encounter Hashem as He is described by the Torah and not as we imagine Him.

 

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Shechitah, Introduction.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 22:6.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 3, chapter 48.

[4] Mesechet Berachot 33b.

[5] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 22:6.

[6] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 3, chapter 48.

[7] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Tefilah, 9:7.

[8] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Tefilah, 9:7.