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   by Jacob Solomon

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If a bird’s nest happens to be before you, on any tree or on the ground… you shall not take the mother with the young. You shall send away the mother and take the young for yourself, so that it will good for you and prolong your days (22: 6-7).

This seemingly straightforward commandment has given rise to many questions, among which are:

  1. The act of sending away the mother bird appears to be an act of mercy. Why therefore does the Talmud (Berachot 33b) declare that if one says, “Your (i.e. G-d’s) mercies extend even to a bird’s nest” (i.e. the above commandment) he must be silenced? Surely this precept ideally represents G-d’s ‘mercy on all flesh’ (Psalm 145:9)?
  2. The Torah promises that those who observe this commandment will be rewarded with good fortune and long life. This reward is also promised for two other specific precepts in the Torah – honoring parents (4:16) and honest conduct in business (using exact weight and measures) (25:15). What, therefore, have the commandments of sending away the mother bird, honoring parents, and integrity in business dealings got in common?
  3. The Talmud (Kiddushin 39b) brings the following story. A father asked his son to climb a tree and bring down the eggs from the nest. The son climbed the tree, frightened off the mother bird and took the eggs. Thus he merited the rewards of good fortune and long life twice – for honoring his father and for frightening off the mother bird. However on the way down he fell from the tree, and was instantly killed. One of the answers given by the Talmud - that the Torah does not expect a person to behave recklessly in observing commandments - seems hard to digest. For many people – then and today (the writer among them) have missed disaster by a hairbreadth in far more dangerous situations than climbing a tree… So how may the boy’s death be understood in the light of the Torah’s promises?

In working towards resolving these difficulties, it is important to look at the following. Firstly, the way various commentators understand the reasoning behind the requirement to send away the mother bird. Secondly, the different interpretations given to, ‘so that it will be good for you and prolong your days’.

The Rambam (Guide for the Perplexed 3:48) explains that the reason for this commandment is to avoid cruelty to animals. Animals instinctively love their young, and they suffer greatly when they see them slaughtered or taken away. The Ha’amek Davar goes further, by explaining that the special act of mercy involved here is the sending away of the mother bird. The mother could have flown away to save her own life, but instead she remained – willing to die for her children – thus showing exceptional mercy. So it is forbidden to abuse her compassion and grab her or the children.

The Ramban changes the focus of this commandment, stating that its purpose is to inculcate compassion in people, not because (per se) He pities the birds and the animals. It is forbidden to say the latter (as per Berachot 33b) because G-d does allow people to use and slaughter animals for their own needs. Rather, such commandments teach that people should accustom themselves to act considerately and mercifully in daily life. This explanation helps to answer the first question – why one who declares, “Your mercies extend even to a bird’s nest” must be silenced: the reason for this precept is not to demonstrate mercy to the birds, but to elevate the spiritual level of the Torah Nation. However neither explanation appears to address the promise of quality, long life, and the issues raised by the story of the death of the son who fell from the tree.

Abarbanel sees the verses under discussion in much broader terms, and with very wide implications. He develops the theme of G-d wanting to ensure the continuity in His Creation, and to prevent anything from terminating before its time. So He permitted picking fruit, but forbade chopping fruit trees down (20:19-20). Similarly, He allowed removing the young, but banned taking the mother bird that can perpetuate the Creation by giving birth to more young. So the words ‘so that it will be good for you and prolong your days’ have global implications. Maintaining the continuity of the Creation means that Man will continually have the supplies and environment he needs to optimize his existence, so that he will live a longer and higher quality life as a result. Taken to extremes, this is not on the individual basis, as in the story of the fatal accident from falling from the tree, but on the community – as a single entity. Individuals are not encouraged to take dangerous risks to perpetuate the Creation. They have to carry out their duties in such a way as not to endanger themselves - as very essential parts of the community. For they themselves are indeed a vital force in perpetuating the Creation!

This principle is of great importance today. As we continue to enjoy and benefit from the fruits of the Creation via the ducts of advanced technology, we have to treat the environment with wisdom and respect. We cannot afford to break the natural limits of the Earth by destroying the very forces that ensure a balance in nature, and Man’s optimal symbiotic harmony with the Creation. Thus, for example, greatest caution must be taken in genetic engineering. It is something with the short term potential of raising the standard of living (and creating yet more multi-millionaire food manufacturers), but it carries the long term high risk of upsetting the existing food webs and cycles of organic matter. An individual project in genetic engineering must be approached by looking at this long-term issue – will the immediate satisfaction it is planned to give interfere with the Creation, disturbing the prospect of ‘so that it will be good for you and prolong your days’?

This system of values helps us to see the common denominator between sending away the mother bird, honoring parents, and honesty in business. All three must be observed to ensure happy, long life for members of the community at large. Thus unbridled freedom is not what most children want from an early age – despite what they say. They want a feeling of love and security, which they can reciprocate. This is developed where the home atmosphere is built on the foundations of mutual respect. The parents affectionately, but firmly set reasonable boundaries, and the child (in the long run) obtains the psychological security he needs to make his or her way in the world, optimizing potential for the common good.

Similarly, upright business ethics. Honest weights and measures symbolize the importance of trust within the community. Thus a society where people are appointed to key powerful positions on the basis on whom they know and/or are related to can feature, at best, ugly administrative incompetence - and at worst its complete breakdown at the hands of a selfish oligarchy. This has resulted in widespread disease and starvation in many Third World countries… the very antitheses of the life promoting forces for quality long lives…



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