“A cow or a sheep, it and its child, do not slaughter on one day.” – Vayikra 22:28
In one of the many commandments that teach us how to deal with animals, the Torah commands us not to kill a mother and its offspring on one day.
The Sefer HaChinuch explains that one of the rationales behind the mitzvah is “to train ourselves in the trait of mercy, and to distance ourselves from the trait of cruelty. Even though we are permitted to slaughter animals to eat, we must do so in a merciful manner. Killing both the mother and the child in the same day is merciless and will train us in brutality. Therefore, the Torah forbids it.”
This Sefer HaChinuch is difficult to understand. If the Torah is concerned about the good of the animal and its suffering, then the logical thing to do would be to forbid slaughtering it. If, on the other hand, the Torah is concerned about man and the damage such actions will have on him, then slaughtering another living creature to consume its flesh is about as barbaric an act as one could imagine. Surely the act of killing the animal should be forbidden altogether. Yet the Torah allows you to kill animals for any productive reason: whether for their hides, their meat, or any other use. Not only that, you may slaughter as many of them as you like. You may butcher a thousand cows in one day to make shoes to bring to the market – this won’t lead you to cruelty – but make sure that none of these animals are related. If two of those cows are mother and child, it is barbaric – don’t do it! This mitzvah seems very difficult to understand.
The answer to this question is based on understanding how our middos are shaped.
In many places the Sefer HaChinuch stresses that a person’s actions molds his very personality. If he acts with kindness and compassion, these traits become part of his inner nature. He will then feel other people’s pain, and it will become difficult for him to ignore their pleas for help. He will become a kind, compassionate person. The opposite is true as well. If a person acts with cruelty, this trait will become part of him. It will be more difficult for him to care about another person’s plight. He will have a difficult time being sensitive to the suffering of others. He will have adopted callousness into his inner essence.
According to this logic, it would follow that Dovid HaMelech should have been one of the cruelest men in history. He was known as a mighty, merciless warrior. He killed a mountain lion with his bare hands. He won the rights to marry Shaul’s daughter by killing and disfiguring 200 Pilishtim and bringing back their body parts to the king. When Avshalom waged war against him, Chushi advised, “Do not think of ambushing him [Dovid] at night, for everyone knows that he fights like a bear.” And Dovid said about himself, “I will seek out my enemy and have no mercy upon them.”
Yet we know that Dovid one of the kindest, most compassionate men who ever lived. Tehillim is not the expression of a cruel man. It is a manifestation of his pure devotion to Hashem, the outpourings of a heart that is pure, kindly and full of compassion. How is it possible that going to war didn’t ruin him?
The Formula for Perfecting One’s Middos
The Orchas Tzaddikim in his introduction explains that perfecting one’s middos is comparable to a chef preparing a meal. The right ingredients, in the right proportions, prepared in the right manner, will yield a delicious dish. However, all three have to be correct. If, for example, instead of sautéing the onions for 10 minutes, you leave them on the flame for an hour, or if instead of a teaspoon of salt you add a cup, the food will be inedible. It is the quality of the ingredients, in the proper amounts, prepared correctly, that determines the final product.
So too, he explains, when working on one’s character traits. It is the right amount of the right middah in the right time that is the key to perfection. Each middah has its place, time, and correct measure.