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Parshat Ki Teitzei - When you go out (to war) - is full of a very wide range of laws. One of them is rarely practiced today - the law of sending away the mother bird. The Torah says: "When you happen upon a bird's nest before you on the road, in any tree, or on the ground, chicks or eggs, and the mother is sitting on the chicks or the eggs; do not take the mother with the children. Surely you shall send the mother away, and the children you shall take for yourself, in order that it may go well with you and you will prolong your days."
Traditionally, there are two basic schools of thought about how to explain this law against taking the chicks or eggs together with the mother bird. The Ramban (Nachmanides; 1194-1270) summarizes them both: "..the reason... is so that we will not have a cruel heart, and be merciless. Alternatively, the Bible does not permit us to cause extinction, to uproot a species, even though we are allowed to slaughter [individual members] of that species." The first reason is, it would seem, an educational one, geared towards inculcating within us a degree of sensitivity and kindness: certain acts, while otherwise technically permitted, have an element of cruelty to them (Nachmanides puts in this category the prohibition against slaughtering an ox or a sheep together with its offspring on the same day), and are therefore prohibited, in order to teach us, generally, not to be cruel. The second reason calls to mind the dodo, the carrier pigeon, and the many endangered species now on the planet. Man has the power to "uproot" a species, to cause its extinction. In our legitimate use of the creatures of this world, we must take the appropriate steps to ensure that this does not happen; in the case of the mother and chicks, by sending the mother off to continue breeding when we take and kill her young. This will ensure that a species created by God, and which is part of God's plan for the world, is not destroyed forever.
The end of the verse, which promises a reward for doing this - " in order that it may go well with you and you will prolong your days" - has occasioned much comment over the centuries. Why does this funny little Mitzvah, which very rarely happens (the only person I know who ever did this is my son Uri, who once climbed on to the roof of his Yeshiva to get to a nest, got into a lot of trouble, and then didn't know what to do with the pigeon eggs), merit this equally rare promise of a reward, which, by the way, is the same reward which the Torah, in the Ten Commandments, posits for honoring one's parents? Honoring your mother and father is a big deal; one can understand the Torah taking the unusual step of promising a payback for doing so, but why does this Mitzvah get the same treatment?
Rashi answers that it's not that the Mitzvah of sending the mother away is special; on the contrary, it really is no big deal at all. It is precisely its relative unimportance that teaches us that "if for doing a simple little Mitzvah like this one, which doesn't cost you much, the Torah promises 'that it may go well with you and you will prolong your days', how much more so will this be the case for doing serious, difficult Mitzvot". In other words, the Mitzvah of sending away the mother is actually a minor one, and not particularly worthy of the reward of a good, long life. This reward is promised here because it is the reward for all Mitzvot. Sending away the mother is an easy, run-of-the-mill Mitzvah, and simply serves as an example of the general reward for all Mitzvot.
Now, I would like to do two things. First, combine the two different rationales for the Mitzvah (to mitigate cruelty and prevent the extinction of species), and then offer an understanding of the reward promised for this Mitzvah which is different than Rashi's. To do so, let's hear a few words from the Rashbam (1080-1174), Rashi's grandson. He says, in explaining the reason for this Mitzvah, that the taking of the mother together with her brood, like the slaughter of an animal and its child, or the cooking of a kid in its mother's milk, "seems cruel and voracious", and that is why they are forbidden. I want to focus on his two key words - achzariut (cruelty) and ra'avtanut (voraciousness). I think that the Rashbam combines the two rationales for the Mitzvah which we mentioned above, namely, a prohibition against cruelty and against killing to extinction. It is, I believe, the combination of these two character flaws, cruelty and voraciousness, which is what this prohibition is precisely about, and which also is the reason for the extraordinary promise of a good, long life, for those who rid themselves of these negative traits.
Innumerable species are already extinct, and many are on their way to extinction, because of man's cruel and insatiable appetite. Our inability to develop the sensitivity which the Torah here demands of us; our brutishness, exemplified by the killing of a mother and her child, as well as our insatiable appetite, which prevents us from caring about the destruction of an entire species, has led to the disappearance of countless life forms. I remember the disgust and dismay I felt as a child when reading about the organized slaughter of buffalo in the American West - entire herds wiped out by train-riding "sportsmen". The insensitivity, cruelty, and perverse appetite for slaughter turned my stomach; it is precisely this cruel and voracious behavior and mind-set which this Mitzvah is meant to uproot.
But this Mitzvah, and its implications, go way beyond that, for we now know something which Rashi, the Rashbam, and the Ramban probably did not know: that our cruel rapaciousness is actually doing just what the Torah, by implication, promised it would: making our own lives short, and miserable. Because a good, long life is not a reward for doing this Mitzvah - it is its logical and inevitable consequence. The Torah is not vegetarian. In the Book of Genesis, man is given the right, explicitly, to use the world that God created, and its creatures, as master, steward, and guardian. However, Mitzvot such as the sending away of the mother teach us how we are meant to carry out this stewardship: with sensitivity, kindness, and with a cautious and careful eye towards the future sustainability of our environment. The faults of cruelty and voraciousness are not only responsible for destroying species after species; they are also ruining eco-system after eco-system. They are shortening our lives, and the lives of our children, by making our air unbreathable, our sunshine - unfiltered by an ozone layer - unbearable, and the delicate balance of polar ice caps, rain forests, and oceans, unsustainable. This simple, easy little Mitzvah of sending the mother away when we take her eggs or chicks, from which we are meant to learn the lessons of compassion, mercy, and sensitivity, along with a profound and active respect for the world which God has created, together with all its creatures, holds within it our own happiness, and, indeed, our very lives. With this Mitzvah, the Torah taught us, long before anyone ever heard of food chains, global warming, or greenhouse gases, that only if we learn to love, cherish, and take responsibility for the natural abundance which God has given us will things go well for us, and our days be prolonged.
Rabbi Shimon Felix