This week's Torah portion contains more commandments — 72, according to Maimonides' count — than any other in the Torah. One of the most fascinating ones is this: "If you happen to come upon a bird's nest in front of you as you're walking along, in a tree or on the ground, and there are young birds, or eggs, and the mother is sitting upon the young, or upon the eggs, you must not take the mother with her young. You shall let the mother go, sending her away, and then you may take the young for yourself, that it may be well with you, and that you will live a long time after that."
This commandment seems devised to spare the mother the pain of seeing her young taken away before her very eyes. Birds are acknowledged as having feelings, and we are therefore enjoined to show compassion. This commandment also teaches us something about the responsibility of human parents; according to Maimonides, if we're supposed to not cause grief to animals, then how much more careful must we be that we should not cause grief to our fellow human beings.
Few commandments have the reward for doing them built right into the commandment itself. This one, though, says that if you send the mother bird away before taking the young, then things will go well for you, and you will live a long life.
This reward seemed so out-of-step with actual experience that Rabbi Akiba taught that the reward associated with the doing of this mitzvah would occur in the world to come — and not in this life.
There was one rabbi, though, nearly 2,000 years ago, for whom this understanding wasn't sufficient. Elisha ben Abuyah was one of the leading scholars of the rabbinic world 2,000 years ago; he served on the Sanhedrin. One of his disciples, Rabbi Meir, is regarded as one of the most important rabbis of all time.
'There Is No Justice'
Despite his early promise, Elisha ben Abuyah's life did not turn out the way it began.
According to the Talmud, he was out walking one day, and witnessed a man violate Shabbat by collecting eggs from a nest and taking the eggs while the mother was resting upon them, without sending her away.
A few days later, Elisha ben Abuyah watched a young boy, at the request of his father, climb a tree to gather some eggs in a nest on one of the branches.
The young boy — hurrying to fulfill the mitzvah of honoring his parent — climbed the tree, drove away the mother bird just as the Torah commanded, and then reached for the eggs. The boy slipped, fell to the ground, and was killed by the fall.
Elisha ben Abuyah stood motionless, as if struck by a lightening bolt. In the moments that followed, his faith left him, and from his mouth came the conclusion that he could no longer escape: "There is no justice, and there is no Judge."
Not only do bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people, but the final verses of this week's Torah portion asserts that evil will always be with us.
Indeed, the embodiment of evil is Amalek — that enemy of Israel who attacked the Israelite camp from the rear, striking where the smallest, weakest and most frail people were camped. For this evil, the Torah tells us, "You shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget."
And in the very same light, what the Torah commands us to do in regard to Amalek is also what the rabbis later did to the legacy of Elisha ben Abuyah.
Whenever mentioned in the Talmud, he's referred to as "Acher" — meaning "other" — even his name can no longer be said. And yet, by preserving the very blotting out of his name, the rabbis made sure that Elisha ben Abuyah still lives within our tradition.
Struck a Chord
Why preserve this tradition that runs counter to all the rabbis believed in and based their lives upon?
Why use the name "Acher" to refer to Elisha ben Abuyah when his name, and stories about him, could simply have been edited out of existence?
It's as if the rabbis are recognizing that even though parts of us are undesirable and we should try to blot them out, they are still a part of us. How we regard them matters not a whit to whether they're there or not.
Elisha ben Abuyah's loss of faith and his moving away from Judaism must have struck a solid chord in all the rabbis who fell on the other side of the issues that drove Elisha ben Abuyah away. And Amalek — for all of his being regarded as the ultimate "other" — perhaps is also recognized as also being a part of each of us.
What we regard as "other" is inevitably a part of who we are. We preserve parts of our tradition that we'd rather forget or deny. It is important to remember this during this month of Elul, during this traditional period of self-examination and self-exploration of our deeds and misdeeds leading up to the High Holidays, and especially, Yom Kippur.
We're able to turn our lives around not by living in denial, but by acknowledging parts of ourselves and of our communities seen as undesirable — or even evil. We are to remember and to blot out. Perhaps we are able to blot out that which is undesirable only because we continually remember those parts, and because we remain ever-vigilant regarding their potential power over us.
And we work to acknowledge all that is dark within us, even as we're guided by the light beyond us. In this way, we are able to continue along the path toward our truest, fullest and very best selves.
Rabbi Jeff Sultar is senior rabbi at Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia.