Parshat Ki Teste
The bulk of the Parashat Ki Tetse is a diverse array of social, legal, ethical, and ritual laws. Maimonides contends that 72 of the 613 mitzvot come from this parashah. For example: not to plow a field with an ox and ass in harness together, not to weave linen and wool together, the law of the wayward son, and the requirement to return a neighbor’s lost animal. While they seem unrelated, they are united by a concern for the stability of the community as a bastion for religious values and practices.
But there is one law in particular that caught my eye. It is the law concerning a nest, the mother bird and her chicks. Referred to in Hebrew as Sheluach H’cain (literally “sending from the nest”), Deuteronomy 22: 6-7 states:
If along the road, you happen upon a bird’s nest, whether it is in a tree or lying on the ground, containing fledglings or eggs, and the mother is sitting over the baby birds or eggs, do not take the mother along with the young. You must let the mother bird go free and take only the young in order that it will go well for you and that your days will be long.
The Torah seems to be concerned with preventing cruelty to animals! But I believe there is much more we can learn. First let’s see what some of the classical biblical commentators have to say:
Rashi (1040-1105) teaches us that this is an easy mitzvah, for it requires no preparation and comes into play if you happen to be on the road and come upon the nest and desire the eggs or the baby birds. Rashi muses that if the reward for such an easy mitzvah is so great how much more so must a reward for a difficult mitzvah be.
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim (1748-1800), better known as the Degel Macheneh Ephraim, adds that since the language emphasizes that if one happens to be along the way there is always an opportunity to do a mitzvah – in this case to be of service – you simply need to pay attention.
Maimonides (1135-1204) argues that if the mother is let go then she will not be pained by the sight of her young ones taken away. Rashbam (1085-1158) recalls another commandment concerning mother animals and their young – namely the prohibition against cooking a kid in its mother’s milk (the basis of not mixing meat and milk) and teaches us that it is cruel and gluttonous to slaughter a mother together with her young. Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) emphasizes that, indeed, human beings have the capacity to be cruel. And Nachmanides (1194-1270) posits that the laws were written to teach people to be kind, in general.
From this wisdom, we can see that this mitzvah is part of the Jewish tradition wherein one human being is to be kind to others, including non-human beings. Of course, the point of mitzvot is that they become part of our daily lives, and we begin with this one when we understand that there is something greater than ourselves and our selfish desires. Then in imitating our Creator, who practices loving acts of kindness to all creatures large and small, we learn how to treat others, not with cruelty but with lovingkindness.
And yet there is more here to learn. If we keep reading, we find that there is a reward – to put it in Beit T’Shuvah terms – for treating a mama bird as if she matters: “that it will go well for you and that your days will be long.” (This is highly unusual! There is only one other place in the Torah where one’s reward is included with a specific command, and that is Exodus 20:12, which teaches: “Honor our father and our mother, that you may long endure on the land the Lord your God is assigning to you.”) Our old friend Ibn Ezra reframes the command, pointing out that the reward for shooing away the mother bird is that God will, in turn, have mercy on us. Perhaps there is a reciprocity between our work here on earth and our relationship with God. We have learned that we must strive at all times to do acts of lovingkindness; this is a path to follow on a purpose-driven life. And if we are able to honor and care for all of God’s creatures, then – as we, ourselves, are God’s creatures – God will honor and care for us.
I believe we can learn some very important lessons from this simple little mitzvah. So let’s go back and trace the thinking of our commentators:
First, we can always be of service; it is simply up to us to pay attention.
Second, we should strive to never treat anyone or anything with cruelty.
Third, gluttony has no place in our tradition; we will be cared for if we are patient.
Fourth, we must learn to treat others with respect and lovingkindness.
And finally – most importantly – we learn that there is something greater than ourselves that can, in turn, show us lovingkindness and mercy.
May it go well with us!
Chaplain Deborah Schmidt