Parashat Ki Teseh- The Challenge of Gratitude
Among the many topics covered in Parashat Ki Teseh is the Misva of "Shilu’ah Ha’ken," which requires sending away a mother bird before taking the eggs or chicks from the nest. Interestingly, the Torah promises long life as the reward for observing this Misva: "…in order that it be good for you and you live a long life" (22:7).
The Talmud notes that there is only one other Misva in the entire Torah for which we are promised the reward of longevity – the obligation to honor one’s parents. These two Misvot, the Talmud further observes, are polar opposites of one another. Honoring parents is the most difficult of all Misvot, while sending away the mother bird is the easiest. By promising the same reward of long life for both these Misvot, the Talmud explains, the Torah teaches us never to try to calculate the value of Misvot. The fact that the easiest and most difficult Misvot offer the same reward proves that the value and effect of Misva observance lie beyond the limited scope of human comprehension. We must therefore observe all the Misvot without any calculations, for we simply have no way of ascribing greater value to a particular Misva over others.
The question arises, why did the Sages consider honoring parents the most difficult Misva, and Shilu’ah Ha’ken the easiest?
One answer, perhaps, is that Shilu’ah Ha’ken entails but a single, momentary act, whereas the Misva of honoring parents never ends. No matter how much one does for his parents, regardless of how much he extends himself to help them and give them respect, he has not come even close to repaying them for all they had done for him. Honoring parents might therefore be more the most difficult Misva in the sense that it can never be completed, as there is always more that one can and must do. Shilu’ah Ha’ken, by contrast, is completed through the single, effortless act of sending away the mother bird, thus making it the easiest of all the Misvot.
There is, however, another factor that makes honoring parents so difficult, and Shilu’ah Ha’ken so easy. The obligation of Shilu’ah Ha’ken, as a number of scholars explain, is intended to cultivate within a person a sense of compassion. We must show compassion for the mother bird – by sending her away so she does not see the seizing of her young – so that we train ourselves in the art of sensitivity, being cognizant of the feelings of others. Honoring parents, of course, is about gratitude, displaying our appreciation for their having given us life and the endless efforts they invested in raising us.
Compassion is simple, but gratitude is very difficult. It is generally easy, and even natural, to feel compassion for another person. When we see or hear of somebody in distress, we instinctively feel a sense of mercy and pity for that individual. When it comes to gratitude, however, the human instinct is to resist feeling appreciative. Expressing sincere gratitude is, essentially, a confession of dependence, an acknowledgment that we could not have managed without the help we received. We are not speaking here of saying "Thank you" to the cashier in the store, or to the mailman after he delivers the mail, which is required more as a courtesy than as an expression of heartfelt feelings of appreciation. Rather, we refer here to thanking our spouses for all they do for us; thanking our employees for their indispensable service; thanking our parents and other family members for all their assistance and support. The egotistical instinct leads people to insist on their own self-sufficiency, and deny their reliance on other people. It is very difficult to resist this tendency, and to humbly and sincerely thank those upon whom we rely. It is easy to say "Thank you" to the cashier because we do not truly depend on his or her service. If necessary, we could shop elsewhere. It is far more difficult to express gratitude to our spouse, upon whom we rely, in a very real sense, for almost everything in our lives – something that is very difficult for most people to acknowledge.
This, perhaps, is why the Sages considered honoring parents the most difficult of all Misvot. There are no people in the world to whom we are more beholden than our parents, and therefore there is no one to whom it is more difficult to feel grateful. The obligation of honoring parents thus serves to break our natural egotistical tendencies, and help us humbly recognize our dependence on other people – and certainly on God – for everything we have in our lives. No, we are not capable of doing it ourselves. We rely on many other people – and we must humbly acknowledge and express our enormous debt of gratitude to them.