If, along the road, you chance upon a bird's nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the 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 Rabbah 6:2
R. Abba b. Kahana taught: The Blessed Holy One said: "Do not dwell on weighing the commandments of the Torah . . . Do not say, 'Since this commandment is a great one, I will perform it because its reward is great, and seeing that the other commandment is a minor one, I will not perform it.' What did God do? He did not reveal to His creatures the reward for each commandment, so that they might perform all the commandments without questioning . . . "
God did not reveal the reward [for performance] of the commandments, except for two: the very weightiest and the least weighty. Honoring one's parents is the very weightiest and its reward is length of days, as it is said, Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long . . . (Exod. 20:12). The sending away of the mother bird is the least weighty [commandment], and what is its reward? Length of days, as it is said, Let the mother go [. . . in order that you may fare well and have a long life.] (Deut. 22:7) Hence [the deceptively simple preface]: If you chance upon a bird's nest . . . (Deut. 22:6)
When is hard work a reward in and of itself, not just a means to an end? Many of us have willingly poured our hearts and souls into jobs and projects that became a true labor of love. But what about those chores whose purpose defied comprehension, those obligations that we try to avoid or just simply ignore? The midrash above, and our rabbinic tradition as a whole, asserts that meeting such challenges can indeed lengthen our lives.
Our liturgy reminds us every evening, in the blessing immediately preceding recitation of the Shema', that the Torah and its commandments "are the essence of our lives and the length/fullness of our days." When we embrace not only those responsibilities that we would gladly choose for ourselves, we engage in the hard spiritual work of personal growth. To be created in the image of God means that each of us has infinite potential that can be realized only by accepting a universe of obligations beyond oneself.
As we prepare for the High Holy Days, let us recommit ourselves to the heavy lifting and the attention to detail that can fill our days with life-lengthening meaning and honor.