This Week In Torah
Greetings! Our Torah portion this week is Parshat Ki Tetze, Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19. Unlike last week’s portion, Shoftim, which was focused on the theme of justice, this week’s portion contains a plethora of mitzvot. Parshat Ki Teitzei, contains 74 mitzvot, more than any other portion of the Torah.
Parshat Ki Teitzei reveals an interesting mitzvah that leaves us scratching our heads and asking, “Why?” In Chapter 22, we read, “If you come across a bird’s nest beside the road, either in a tree or on the ground, and the mother-bird is sitting on the young or on the eggs, do not take the mother with the young. You may take the young, but be sure to send away the mother-bird, so that it may go well with you and you may have a long life.” This mitzvah is known as shiluach ha-ken (dismissal of the nest). The Torah instructs us to send the mother away before taking eggs or baby birds from a nest, and makes the interesting promise of long life as the reward. Note that Shiluach ha-ken is a decree (gezeirah), a commandment we can’t rationally understand; we are to simply obey it, and by doing so prove our faith to God.
The Rabbis of the Talmud questioned this mitzvah and offered alternative interpretations. They understood from these verses that we are obligated in the mitzvah of tza’ar ba’alei chayim, to avoid causing unnecessary pain and suffering to animals (Baba Metzia 32). Rambam (Moses Maimonides) agreed with this interpretation, stating that the purpose of
shiluach ha-ken is to spare the mother the pain of seeing her offspring or eggs taken from her.
Targum Yerushalmi states that to earn God’s mercy, we must act mercifully toward other creatures that dwell on earth, thus suggesting that the mitzvah of shiluach ha-ken is meant to infuse us with a spirit of compassion. Ramban (Moses b. Nachman – Nachmanides) is of the same mind, stating that if we learn to treat animals with compassion, how much more compassion will we show other human beings?
In his commentary to Deuteronomy 22:6, Rabbi Don Isaac Abravanel offers a third, and very different interpretation of the mitzvah of shiluach ha-ken, based on his awareness of the essential interplay between humans and their environment, and the importance of sustainability. He writes:
The Torah’s intention is to prevent the possibility of untimely destruction and rather, to encourage Creation to persist as fully as possible… in order that you may fare well and live long, means that this mitzvah (of sending away the mother bird) has no intended purpose for the sake of the animals, but rather that it shall be good for humankind, because when the birds will be perpetuated, we will be able to eat from them many additional times… and that is how you will live longer…”
When we keep an open mind and don’t just take the words of the Torah at face value, we are able to uncover deeper insights into these verses including: the principle of tza’ar ba’alei chayim, the importance of protecting animals from pain and suffering; the lesson that compassion is a learned attitude and behavior; and the protection and sustainability of species. Taken together, the common thread is the importance of compassion for all those affected by human behavior – compassion for the mother bird, compassion that can be learned and exhibited in human relationships, compassion for the larger picture of the environment. How much richer and more meaningful this mitzvah is now.