Some obligations, like a financial debt, can be paid back. Other things that we might do for someone else, on the other hand, can have far-reaching impacts, and change the nature of a relationship forever.
This is a central tension in the parent-child relationship. Parents invest in our children. That investment cannot be repaid – instead we ask our children to pay it forward, to invest in the next generation in turn. The debt is real, but it is an investment for which no sensible parent expects repayment beyond honor and, ideally, love.
The classic example of saving someone’s life is quite rare – but it remains the gold standard for an obligation that can never really be repaid, that even if it is somehow balanced by the previous savior’s life saved in turn, the result is not no relationship, but instead a deeper and stronger one! The things we do for other people bind us together, and reciprocity is not repayment: it is an additional connection and a reinforcement of the love we show each other.
The Torah uses a single word to describe this kind of permanent connection and obligation between two parties, and it is first described using a zoological reference: the crop of a pigeon or dove.
Pigeons and doves secrete what is called “crop milk,” a nutrient and fat-rich fluid generated in the crop of the bird. These birds, like human parents, do not merely feed their young; they invest of themselves into the next generation. As the only birds that invest intergenerationally in the same way that mammals do, Joseph Cox points out that they are qualified to be offerings in the Tabernacle or Temple. The crop thus represents a permanent investment in the next generation, a life-giving feature that creates a permanent indebtedness.
The word for “crop,” mara or מֻרְאָ, is found only once in the Torah in describing how we offer these birds. But the word itself appears a few other times in the text, each time referring to a symbolically similar event: a lifesaving act.
Mara is also used to refers to the Exodus. Usually (mis)translated as “awesome” or “dreadful” the word is found as follows:
Or has any god ventured to go and take for himself one nation from the midst of another by prodigious acts, by signs and portents, by war, by a mighty and an outstretched arm and great mara, as the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? (Deut. 4:34)
No man shall stand up to you: the LORD your God will put the dread and the mara of you over the whole land in which you set foot, as He promised you. (Deut. 11:25)
The LORD freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and great mara, and by signs and portents. (Deut. 26:8)
And then in the very last verse of the Five Books of Moses:
and for all the great might and great mara that Moses displayed before all Israel.
While translators often opt to translate the word as “power” or “dread,” I think they miss the point of the pigeon’s crop, mara. The point is that each of these usages represents the result of a life-saving obligation, one that is analogous to the first time the word is used, after the Flood, when Noach has saved all the animals:
And your mara and your chit shall be upon all the beasts of the earth and upon all the birds of the sky—everything with which the earth is astir—and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hand. (Gen. 9:2)
By saving their lives, Noach did just as a pigeon does: he invested himself in saving the animals, just as the pigeons invest in saving their young, just as G-d did when he saved us from Egypt, and as Moses did when he saved the people time and again.
Those acts created an indebtedness between the Jewish people and G-d. We owe Him, though we cannot repay the obligation. Instead, as with any parent and child, we can pay it forward, to commit to growing our relationship, to investing in other people and our own children in turn. Our lives were saved, and we are changed because of it.
Noach’s salvation of the animals changed the relationship between man and the animal kingdom. Originally, before the Flood, G-d tells both man and animals to eat plants:
God said, “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food. And to all the animals on land, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything that creeps on earth, in which there is the breath of life, [I give] all the green plants for food.” And it was so. (Gen 1:29-30)
Before the Flood, man was essentially in parallel with animals: we could shear sheep and milk goats, but we could not eat them. Not until Noach saved their lives.
When Noach saved the animals, he created an obligation from animals to mankind, which resulted in a rearrangement of the food chain. Mankind saved animals, and so they owe their very lives to mankind. As a result, after the Flood, we are allowed to eat animals.
Similarly, after being saved from Egypt, we have an obligation to G-d. We acknowledge that obligation by seeking to follow His commandments, most of which are anchored in reminding us of this central fact: G-d saved us from Egypt, and so we owe a debt for which we can only pay the interest. And just like a parent, G-d wants us to acknowledge the debt not by trying to save G-d in turn (which would be impossible), but instead by investing in each other and in a relationship with our Creator.
P.S. Even the Deut 11:25 case works with this understanding: the mara is not from the inhabitants, but from the land itself – we are bound to the Land of Israel and it to us, saving each other in turn.
[an @iwe, @kidcoder, @eliyahumasinter and @susanquinn collaboration!]