More to life than self-interest

More to life than self-interest

Ki Tetzei — Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19

Parshat Ki Tetzei includes this law: If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.

Midrash Tanhuma teaches:

Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai taught: The Holy One has revealed the reward for heeding two precepts in the Torah: one of these precepts is the least onerous, and the other is the most onerous. The least onerous concerns letting the mother go when chancing on a bird’s nest — with regard to it, the Torah promises, “that you may have a long life.” The most onerous concerns honoring one’s father and mother — with regard to it, also, the Torah promises, “that your days may be long.”

The point of this midrash, of course, is to suggest that all the mitzvot are equal, from sending away the mother bird — which involves no expense or preparation — to honoring one’s parents — which may require prodigious effort and significant financial and emotional investment.

But it also calls attention to two texts, and when you compare them, there’s a fascinating discrepancy. In the Ten Statements, the Torah says, “Honor your father and your mother…in order that your days — yamecha — may be prolonged. However, in this week’s parsha, the text says, “Let the mother go…in order that you may fare well and have a long life” — literally, prolonged days — yamim.”

Clearly, the meaning of the second text is that by fulfilling this mitzva you will prolong your life, but that’s not what the words actually say. What the Torah does say is, “so that you will prolong life.” Perhaps the commandment to send away the mother bird is not about preserving the life of the person who finds the nest, but about preventing the destruction of species.

As it happens, Ramban (Nahmanides), the 13th-century Spanish commentator, hints at this before he veers off in another direction. He writes, “The Torah will not permit a destructive act that would uproot a species even though it does permit the ritual slaughter of members of that species.” In other words, if people routinely took mother birds along with their nests, in time there would be no more nests and no more birds.

If this concerned Ramban in the 13th century, how much more should we be concerned today, when we know of hundreds of extinct species — among them the eastern elk, the passenger pigeon, the blue pike, and, of course, the dodo — and easily thousands that are endangered or threatened, including the grizzly bear, the humpback whale, the California condor, the African elephant, and the three-toed sloth.

But why should we worry about the possible extinction of plant and animal species when so many human beings around the world are in desperate need?

Some would argue that it’s a matter of enlightened self-interest — perhaps we’ll destroy a plant that might be used to cure cancer or an animal whose DNA might one day protect us against Alzheimer’s disease. But the Torah teaches us that there is more to life than self-interest.

At the very beginning of the Torah, in parshat Bereshit, we read: “And God said, let us make the human being in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.”

And after God does so, the Torah says, “The Lord God took the human being and placed him in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it.”

As the psalmist proclaims, “The world and everything in it belongs to God.” We human beings didn’t create it — and we have no right to destroy what we did not make.

Even more, God gave human beings the specific task of tending, guarding, and preserving the world. May we make use of plants and animals for our own benefit? Of course. But we may not be greedy or thoughtless, because we have a responsibility to all living things.

So take the nest, but chase the mother bird away to ensure that the world will always be full of birds. For when the Torah exhorts us “u’v’harta b’haim,” choose life, there are no limits placed on the forms of life we celebrate.

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