My Hebrew Word: Sha-lach – Watch your step
By Rabbi Chaim Weiner
The word ‘shalach’ means to send. It appears in many forms. In the transitive form [Shi-lach] means ‘to cause something to go’. As a noun [Sha-li-ach] means ‘a messenger’. With so many different meanings it is no surprise that it is such a common word.
In my piece today I will focus on one of the commandments of the Torah that contains this word [Shi-lu-ach HaKen] – which literally means, ‘the sending of the nest’.
If, along road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and 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, 8-9]
The reward for obeying this commandment is a long life. It is rare for the Torah to offer a specific reward for obeying a commandment. Indeed, the reward long of life is only offered in one other place in the Torah. It is the reward for honouring one’s parents.
But is fulfilling these commandments a guarantee of a long life?
The Talmud [Kiddushin 39b] relates that story of Rabbi Yakov. He witnessed a man call his son and ask him bring him some eggs from a nest on the roof. The boy immediately went to fulfil his father’s request. He climbed a ladder to the roof and found a nest full of eggs with a mother bird sitting on them. He sent the mother away, following commandment of the Torah, and took the eggs. On his way down from the roof, the ladder broke and the boy fell to his death.
How, Rabbi Yakov asks, could this be?! The boy is fulfilling the two commandments that promise a long life, and at that very moment he met his death! The conclusion Rabbi Yakov reached was that there is no reward for observing commandments in this world! This is a very pessimistic conclusion.
The Talmud doesn’t buy into this idea. The Talmud believe – Messengers sent to do a Mitzva will not be harmed. It suggests that the boy was coming down a shaky ladder, and that the promise of a long life doesn’t apply to shaky ladders!
I understand this as meaning that, in general, if people obey the commandments – particularly with regard to honouring parents who have a specific concern with taking care of the well-being of their children – then they will create a society in which individuals thrive. This will lead to living a longer life. However, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take care in places of clear and present danger. Yes, you should respect your father. But don’t use that as an excuse to be climbing on a broken ladder!
These are questions of deep philosophy. People have struggled with the seeming lack of reward and punishment in our world since the beginning of time. I won’t solve this question in a short piece.
It is enough for us to know that being sent to do a Mitzva is a great honour. And that even when you are doing a good deed, you should still be careful.
Rabbi Chaim Weiner is Av Bet Din of the European Masorti Bet Din and Director of Masorti Europe.
Rabbi Chaim Weiner writes a blog about the most frequently used words in the Hebrew language. The blog aims to give readers a basic 30-word vocabulary to help them on their journey to greater Jewish literacy. If you’re interested in reading more, or want to receive his blog postings on a regular basis, you can sign up at myhebrewwords.wordpress.com.