a bird in the hand
Containing over 70 of the 613 commandments, this week’s reading is the most Mitzva-packed portion in the Bible. But of all of these commandments, only one promises us a reward, and an unusual commandment it is – to chase away a mother bird before taking the eggs from her nest:
If you happen to come across a bird’s nest on the way, in a tree or on the ground, containing young birds or eggs, and the mother bird is sitting on the young or the eggs, you must not take the mother with the young. You should send the mother away, but take the young, in order that it will be well for you and you will have long days. (Devarim XXII:7-8)
Why should the simple act of shooing away the mother bird merit a specific commandment – and why, of all commandments, should it be rewarded with “long days”?
On the face of it, this commandment is an expression of compassion to animals, recognizing that it is wrong to take advantage of a mother bird’s maternal instinct and the fact that she stays near her young to protect them, rather than flee to protect herself.
Yet the rabbis of the Mishnah seem to criticize this approach, stating that that one must not say the reason for this commandment is the Lord’s mercifulness:
One who says in his prayers: “Your mercy reaches as far as the nest of a bird” … should be silenced. (Berakhot 5: 3)
Many commentators suggest that this commandment is intended less to express compassion to animals, and more to ingrain compassion in ourselves. Nachmanides (Spain, C13th), for example, suggests that we should avoid becoming hardened to the pain of others: “The principle is not to manifest pity for the animal, but to implant in man the value of mercy”.
But another Spanish commentator, Don Isaac Abarbanel, the 15th century statesman and diplomat, suggests a very different approach – one with a modern relevance:
The Torah’s intention is to prevent the possibility of untimely destruction and rather to encourage Creation to exist as fully as possible. Therefore, “In order that it will be well for you and you will have long days” means that “it shall be good for humankind when Creation is perpetuated so that we will be able to partake of it again in the future… since if we are destined to live for many years on this earth, we are reliant upon Creation perpetuating.
Writing over 500 years ago, Abarbanel describes the modern concept of “sustainable development” – the need to ensure that our progress does not diminish the basic resources which continue to supply our needs. According to Abarbanel, the reason we leave the mother bird is quite simply so that the breeding stock remains, and that there will be more eggs and young available in the future.
The idea of sustainable development in fact is evident throughout many of the teachings of the Bible. Perhaps most prominently it is the theme of the second paragraph of the Shema prayer, which similarly draws a connection between following the Jewish laws and our ability to build a lasting agricultural society, concluding with the promise that if the laws are followed: “your days and the days of your children will be multiplied upon the land which the Lord swore to your forefathers to give them, as long as the days of the heavens are above the earth”.
Commenting on this text, Nigel Savage, contemporary Jewish scholar and founder of the Jewish environmental movement Hazon, notes the connection between traditional Jewish teaching and the concept of sustainable development, and sees the State of Israel taking the lead in the area of environmental responsibility:
“We challenge the natural order at our peril; the world daily faces reminders that there is a direct link between our behaviors and the world’s capacity to sustain us.
“From the early days of Israeli agronomists in Africa, to this fall’s conference at Ben Gurion University on desertification, Israel has been at the forefront of seeking to heed the underlying realities of these words; of encouraging each of us to see the relationships between our behavior towards the planet and its consequences.
“By 2030, on current population trends, many parts of the world will have reached population densities comparable with Israel’s today. From low-flush toilets to solar power to smaller homes and cars, Israel sets an environmental lead that much of the world in due course will follow if we are to protect and preserve our planet more effectively than we do today.”
In others’ words
“In peace, the Middle East, the ancient cradle of civilization, will become invigorated and transformed. Throughout its lands there will be freedom of movement of people, of ideas, of goods, and cooperation and development in agriculture will make the deserts blossom. Industry will bring the promise of a better life. Sources of water will be developed and the almost year-long sunshine will yet be harnessed for the common needs of all the nations. Yes, indeed, the Middle East, standing at the crossroads of the world, will become a peaceful center of international communication between East and West, North and South a center of human advancement in every sphere of creative endeavor. This and more is what peace will bring to our region.”
Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Address on receiving the Nobel Prize, 1978
On a lighter note
Of all the Rabbis quoted in the Talmud, the award for the most irreverent sense of humor must go to Rabbi Jeremiah, who always had a wisecrack to test the limits of Talmudic logic. Here is one example of his approach, which finally led the sages of the Talmud to lose their patience:
It was taught that if a fledgling bird is found within fifty cubits of a man’s property, it belongs to the owner of the property. If it is found outside the limit of fifty cubits, it belongs to the person who finds it. Rabbi Jeremiah asked the question: “If one foot of the bird is within the 50 cubit limit, and the other is outside it, what is the law?” It was for this question that Rabbi Jeremiah was thrown out of the House of Study! (Tractate Bava Batra 23b)
But in fact Rabbi Jeremiah had the last laugh. Some time later the sages had to confront a problem that only Rabbi Jeremiah’s hairsplitting approach could solve – and had to call him back to the house of study! (Tractate Bava Batra 165b)