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Strange Commandment: Killing the Son

To those who do not pay close attention, the Torah appears to be full of commandments for which there is no explanation or justification. The defense given by True Believers is often along the lines of, “It does not matter why the commandment is there, G-d wants you to do it anyway.” Which is good enough for true believers, but not very satisfying for everyone else.

I take the position that each and every one of these commandments is explained in the Torah itself; that the text not only tells us (in broad strokes) what we should be doing, but also why we should be doing it. For example, we bring elevation-offerings because Noah invented them to show his understanding of man’s mission on this earth; we dwelled in sukkot (booths) and built a house for G-d in the wilderness because Jacob built those booths for his flock and a house for himself when he was in a similar situation, etc.

@Susanquinn and I were struck last week by a strange commandment:

No animal from the herd or from the flock shall be slaughtered on the same day with its young.

Odd, right? What is the problem with killing two generations of animals on the same day?

The answer is found by looking more carefully at the text. The Hebrew word used for “slaughter” is found first in the Torah when Avraham is about to kill his son, Isaac. “And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son.” (Gen 22:10). And the second time is when Joseph’s brothers slaughter an animal to present a bloody coat to Jacob: “Then they took Joseph’s tunic, slaughtered a kid, and dipped the tunic in the blood.” (Gen. 37:31)

What both of these examples bring is something quite chilling: the death of the child in both cases meant at least the spiritual death of the father. Had Avraham killed Isaac, his son and much-desired legacy, then Avraham would have been through.

And in the case of Jacob, it is even more explicit: Jacob sees the bloody coat, mourns for Joseph, and announces that he, Jacob, is already as good as dead. “I will go down mourning my son to the grave.” (Gen. 37:35) That moment broke Jacob; he ceased being a decisive leader from that point on. The rest of his life, Jacob, a man of action, could only react to what was going on around him. The perceived death of his son was also a death for the father.

Both of these events, had they fully played out, would have been unmitigated tragedies, and I think the Torah is telling us this when we are forbidden to kill two generations on the same day.

There is an important clue that bolsters this argument. The original verse I quoted above is usually translated as “No animal from the herd or from the flock shall be slaughtered on the same day with its young.” But this is actually a mistranslation. In the Hebrew, it says

“No animal from the herd or from the flock shall be slaughtered on the same day with its son.”

This is the kind of clue that the Torah gives us to create the connections, because this is not merely an intergenerational commandment, but specifically links killing an animal to killing a man’s son – hence the link to Avraham/Isaac and Jacob/Joseph, the first two times the same word for “slaughter” are found in the Torah.

So we see this seemingly-random commandment contains within the text itself its own explanation: it is a remembrance of the horrors that come from a man losing his son, a death that kills both father and son in that day.

[another @susanquinn and @iwe production]

Comments are welcome!