"Etching Compassion" in Preparation for the New Year

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, contains the most mitzvot (commandments) of any parasha: 74 by most counts -- more than one tenth of all the commandments in the Torah!

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, contains the most mitzvot (commandments) of any parasha: 74 by most counts -- more than one tenth of all the commandments in the Torah!

As one way of considering our objectives and intentions during this season, I want to zoom in for a moment on a particular mitzvah from our parasha that’s always fascinated me: “shiluach ha-ken,” “the sending away of the nest”. The text of Deuteronomy 22:6-7 reads:

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.

This mitzvah has generated so much interpretation throughout the centuries. Some commentators focus on the language of the “chance” encounter with the nest, while others debate how tasty fledglings would really be for eating (would they?) or compare this commandment to the laws of kashrut (which also feature mother and baby animals: “do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” – is there a link between them?).

There is also a famous story in the Talmud (which actually appears in different versions in a number of places), that hinges on the seeming guarantee of longevity of life at the end of this mitzvah. It pins the crisis of faith of Elisha ben Abuya -- rabbinic Judaism’s greatest heretic -- to the disconnect between these verses and what he experiences in the world. [This is an aside, but I am a big fan… both of Elisha ben Abuya’s questioning around theodicy, and also of rabbinic tradition’s insistence that the promise of “long life” here can’t be taken literally, but rather must be viewed through a metaphoric or interpretive lens. This is an important reminder for those of us who sometimes find ourselves stuck as we wrestle with the reward and punishment language embedded in our High Holiday liturgy!]

One of my favorite interpretations of this commandment, however, belongs to Shadal, also known as Samuel David Luzzatto, a brilliant 19th century Italian Jewish scholar. In a philosophical treatise called Yesodei ha-Torah, The Foundations of the Torah, Luzzatto argues that the mitzvah of shiluach ha-ken is fundamentally intended to arouse compassion in us. Here are his words (from Sefer Yesodei HaTorah 21:1):

And not towards man alone did the Torah command compassion and kindness, but also towards beast and bird — on the one hand, for the sake of the animals themselves, "for His mercies are on all living things" (Psalms 145:9), and on the other, for the benefit of man himself, so that he habituate himself to the trait of compassion and not adopt that of cruelty. … As we find in the mitzvah of sending away the mother bird (Deut. 22:6-7). For the mother bird lying on its fledglings or eggs could easily have flown away and rescued itself upon seeing or hearing a man approaching. Why did it not do so? Out of compassion for its young. If a man were permitted to take her, it would be impressed upon him that compassion is rash and foolish, causing harm to those actuated by it. And, to the contrary, by its taking being forbidden to him, the glory of compassion will be deeply etched in his heart.

To Luzzatto, shooing away a mother bird before taking eggs from the nest isn’t only a practical matter, but a training exercise designed to strengthen our compassion muscle. Luzzatto goes down two paths in his thought process. First, he considers what might happen if a person were permitted to take the mother bird. He imagines that the mother bird -- out of her own compassion for her young -- would stay in her nest, thus making her an easy target. A person who comes along and snatches the mother, therefore, might incorrectly deduce that the mother bird's compassion is the source of her vulnerability, and extrapolate from there... reaching conclusions that Luzzatto would find false and dangerous. Second, Luzzatto champions this mitzvah and holds it up as a paragon of a compassionate act. In doing so, he is drawing on a long line of commentators from previous centuries, such as Ramban, who explained that "when a person sends off the mother bird and she goes away, she will not be distressed at seeing her young taken" (Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed III:48). Shooing away the mother bird is viewed, therefore, as an act of kindness; anyone who has this much consideration for the feelings of a mother bird will, by extension, also be sensitive to protect the feelings of other human beings. I think this is what Luzzatto means when he posits -- in exquisite language -- that “the glory of compassion will be deeply etched in his heart.” In other places in his writing, Luzzatto also extends a similar line of thought to all of Torah, arguing that, in fact, the point of all of Jewish practice is to engender compassion towards others.

This week, as we prepare for the New Year, I want to suggest that we consciously try to inhabit Luzzatto’s worldview. During Elul, many people observe daily practices anyway as part of the spiritual preparation for the New Year: blowing the shofar, reciting Selichot (penitential) prayers, journaling, and more. Luzzatto’s interpretation of shiluach ha-ken offers a great addition to our spiritual tool-belt, inviting us to consciously cultivate compassion within ourselves through our actions, large and small. If you chance upon a bird’s nest this week, intending to take the eggs, by all means, please do shoo away the mother bird first! But, even if you don’t, fortunately there are an infinite number of other situations which we can view through this lens. (Do you carefully catch and release spiders that turn up inside your house in the fall? Try to buy food that was cultivated locally and ethically? Stock your car with granola bars so you always have something ready to hand to a person in need on the street? Offer support and treats to teachers on strike? I would love to hear your ideas and examples!)  

Whatever your actions of choice, I invite you to join me this week in setting an intention (kavana) around “etching compassion” deeply into our own hearts. Imagine the ripple effects that this collective intention could have, with each of us approaching the new beginning that Rosh Hashanah offers us from a personal place of compassion. Then together, we can set our sights on building a community and a world full of compassion.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum