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Bird Brains?

08/24/2023 04:17:01 PM


Ki Teitzei, our portion this week, includes more mitzvot than any other. One of my favorites is the commandment of “shiluah haken.” When you find a bird’s nest and you take the eggs or fledglings, you must send away the mother bird, and if you do, you will be rewarded with a long life. This is one of the few commandments where a specific reward is offered for its observance. Today we are more likely to get our eggs from the refrigerated section of the supermarket, but we can still learn many lessons from this commandment. I’ll share several here.

One might conclude that this is a commandment meant to teach mercy, and indeed, Maimonides suggests exactly this reason in his Guide to the Perplexed. We send away the mother bird because we do not want to cause distress to her by having her see her eggs or chicks taken. We are concerned for the wellbeing of the bird, and for the refinement of our own personal qualities. The mystics go further and suggest that our compassionate act might inspire God to be compassionate on us as well.

Other sages disagree vigorously. The Mishnah Berachot 5:3 reports that if a prayer leader adds a reference to this mitzvah in their prayers “your mercy extends upon the nest of birds” that person is to be silenced and removed from leading. Based on this ruling, the commandment cannot be considered as related to mercy. On a more rational level, one might ask- will the bird not be just as distressed to return and find its offspring gone? For that matter, if we want to be truly merciful, we would not take the eggs at all! After all, for most recipes, you can substitute apple sauce or yogurt.

As I read the Torah this year, I consider it in light of commentators like Ramban, Ralbag, and Rabbeinu Bachya, who suggest that the issue is not concern with the feelings of one particular bird, but respect of the need of the species to procreate and be sustained. If one takes both mother and eggs, one is eliminating a whole family line and reducing the ability of species to reproduce. One does no better by taking the mother and leaving the eggs with no caregiver. Only if one takes the eggs and leaves the mother, is there an opportunity for the species to be perpetuated, as the mother can lay a new clutch of eggs.

This approach is emblematic of how our tradition understands the human role in nature. We are stewards of creation. We are fully entitled to use every aspect the world that God has given us, but that privilege comes with an obligation to do so sustainably. Similar commandments require that we not slaughter a food animal and its calf on the same day, and that we not cut down fruit trees. We may eat fruit, flesh of fowl and meat, but we must do so in a way that ensures their continued availability for future generations. 

One can generalize these commandments more broadly to apply all of the resources of the world and its environment, including water, energy and the very earth itself. We can rejoice in the earth’s bounty, but we cannot do so at the expense of generations to come. For long stretches of human history, our ancestors might have been building up resource debt, but the amount they borrowed from the future was miniscule compared to what was available, or was very localized and the balance would be restored when people moved on. We now live in a time when the signs of our consumption are more visible, and perhaps less readily reversible. We may not have to worry about gathering eggs from the ground; but we can still ask whether the ways in which we produce food (and everything else that we use and enjoy) leave us with the capability to continue to do so for generations to come. To consume without consideration of the long term implications would, indeed, be bird-brained.

Mon, December 4 2023 21 Kislev 5784