19 August 2021

By Editor | Blogs

Aug 25
Dear Friends,
This week’s parashah, Ki Tétsé, includes one of the most mysterious of mitsvot: the obligation to send away the mother bird before collecting the eggs from a nest. It seems like a far cry from the typical fare of religious texts, but Deuteronomy (22:6-7) couldn’t be more explicit, as we’ll read this Shabbat:

כִּ֣י יִקָּרֵ֣א קַן־צִפּ֣וֹר ׀ לְפָנֶ֡יךָ בַּדֶּ֜רֶךְ בְּכׇל־עֵ֣ץ ׀ א֣וֹ עַל־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֶפְרֹחִים֙ א֣וֹ בֵיצִ֔ים וְהָאֵ֤ם רֹבֶ֙צֶת֙ עַל־הָֽאֶפְרֹחִ֔ים א֖וֹ עַל־הַבֵּיצִ֑ים לֹא־תִקַּ֥ח הָאֵ֖ם עַל־הַבָּנִֽים׃
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.
שַׁלֵּ֤חַ תְּשַׁלַּח֙ אֶת־הָאֵ֔ם וְאֶת־הַבָּנִ֖ים תִּֽקַּֽח־לָ֑ךְ לְמַ֙עַן֙ יִ֣יטַב לָ֔ךְ וְהַאֲרַכְתָּ֖ יָמִֽים׃ {ס}
Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.
Like many of the mitsvot, there’s no immediate explanation given. Why do we need to chase away the mother bird? It tells us the consequence – a long and happy life, clearly a benefit – but it doesn’t tell us the causation.

Unsurprisingly the commentators offer multiple opinions. The most well-known interpretation is that of Rambam (Maimonides, 12th c. Egypt) who understands it to be about teaching compassion:

“People should be restrained and prevented from killing the two together in such a manner that the young is slain in the sight of the mother, for the pain of animals under such circumstances is very great. There is no difference in this case between the pain of people and pain of other living beings regarding the love and tenderness of the mother for her young ones” (Guide for the Perplexed, III:48)
While this is a lovely idea (and certainly a correct teaching – that animals feel the same pain that we do and that is is immoral to be cruel), I actually think the other interpretation is the more accurate one.

The alternative is from the closely named sage Ramban (Nachmanides, 13th c. Spain) who sees it in an altogether different light:

“Scripture will not permit a destructive act that will cause the extinction of a species even though it has permitted the ritual slaughtering of that species. And he who kills mother and children in one day, or takes them while they are free to fly away, is considered as if he destroys the species.” (Comm. on Deut 22:6)
I think this is a far better explanation, and it’s certainly very appropriate to our own times. We are currently in the midst of the largest extinction event in Earth’s history. Among some classes of animals, 75-85% of species have become extinct due to human intervention. I have just begun reading an excellent new book, Silent Earth by Dave Goulson and he talks extensively about the ongoing apocalypse of insect extinctions. 85%. Within the past few hundred years, at most.

A recent report in Nature estimates that one million species of living organism are at risk of extinction within the next few decades. The numbers go on and on but the reality is that we have, as a species and as individuals, absolutely violated the commandment of the mother bird as understood by Ramban (and probably by Rambam too).

Ramban sees this mysterious mitsvah as a warning against destroying a whole species – removing adults and eggs at the same time and thus choking off the procreative pipeline of the species. But this is precisely what we have done – through pollution, deforestation, overhunting, pesticide use, industrialised agriculture, and pure ignorance, negligence, and malice – we have taken millions of ‘mother birds’ and their nests whole.

As we approach the season of teshuvah, this mitsvah is one that we can all say Ashamnu for, speaking in the first-person plural. This is one we have all violated. For the crime of taking the mother bird with the egg, leading to the extinction and extermination of God’s creation – that we all can repent for. Hopefully if we can change our ways and make amends then the promise of Deuteronomy may be ours to have – that our species on this planet may be fruitful, happy and healthy, that we may fare well and have a long life.

Shabbat Shalom,
R’ Adam

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