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Parshas Bamidbar (5774)

A Mitzvah for the Birds

Three sons left home, went out on their own and prospered. Getting back together, they discussed the gifts they were able to give their elderly mother. The first said, "I built a big house for our mother." The second said, "I sent her a Mercedes with a driver." The third smiled and said, "I've got you both beat. You remember how mom enjoyed reading the Bible? And you know she can't see very well. So I sent her a remarkable parrot that recites the entire Bible. It took elders in the church 12 years to teach him. He's one of a kind. Mama just has to name the chapter and verse, and the parrot recites it." Soon thereafter, mom sent out her letters of thanks: "Milton," she wrote one son, "The house you built is so huge. I live in only one room, but I have to clean the whole house.” "Gerald," she wrote to another, "I am too old to travel. I stay most of the time at home, so I rarely use the Mercedes. And the driver is so rude!" "Dearest Donald," she wrote to her third son, "You have the good sense to know what your mother likes. The chicken was delicious!"

There are many jokes like this one involving birds. But did you know that there is also a mitzvah for the birds? The Torah commands us in Deuteronomy 22:6-7: “If a bird’s nest happens to be before you on the road…young birds or eggs, and the mother is roosting…you shall not take the mother with the young. You shall surely send away the mother and take the young for yourself, so that it will be good for you and will prolong your days”.

This week I had the pleasure and privilege of fulfilling this relatively rare commandment – generally known as the mitzvah of Shiluach HaKan (lit. “sending away the nest”; sending away the mother bird before taking its young). In fact, this is one of two Biblical commandments for which the reward is arichus yamim, longevity. The other is Kibbud Av VaEim, honoring one’s parents. (I plan to live forever…so far, so good!)

The mitzvah is performed as follows: When one sees a bird building or sitting in a nest, he should determine whether it is a kosher species. If the nest is on private property, it may be necessary for the owner to first proclaim the eggs or chicks hefker, or ownerless. During the day, it is possible that the male may be roosting. The female will be roosting in the evening, so the mitzvah should be performed at that time. One should approach the nest quietly. Usually the nests are higher than an average person’s reach, so a stick may be gently used to tap the nest or nearby tree limb. After the bird flies away, one should climb up and gently remove the eggs or chicks. The procedure requires lifting the eggs or chicks approximately twelve inches high. After fulfilling the mitzvah, one may keep the offspring or return them to the nest. For various reasons, no blessing is recited before the performance of this mitzvah. [To learn more about Shiluach HaKan and its applicable laws, click on: http://www.star-k.com/kashrus/kk-shiluach-hakan.htm]

It would seem that the rationale for this mitzvah is that we are not to exhibit cruelty to birds or any other of G-d’s creations. We are therefore commanded to shoo away the mommy bird so that she should not see her young being taken from her, causing her great pain and agony.

However, we find sources in the Torah which seem to indicate that this mitzvah is not merely about compassion.

The Mishnah in Berachos 33b states: “If someone says [to G-d in prayer]: ‘[Have mercy on us] as You have mercy on a bird’s nest’, [since the Torah commands us to send away the mother bird before taking the young from her nest]… we silence him.”

The Talmud (ibid.) offers two reasons why we silence a person who says that:
1) For he introduces jealousy into the works of creation, [since he implies that G-d has mercy on the birds, but not on the animals].
2) For he suggests that G-d’s commandments are motivated by compassion, while, in truth, they are absolute decrees.

Nachmanides, in his commentary to Deuteronomy 22:6, explains the Talmud’s second reason to mean that we shouldn’t say that G-d has compassion for this particular bird, per se, or for any other animal for that matter, for if G-d really cared about each individual bird or animal, He wouldn’t allow us to eat them for dinner! Rather, G-d decreed that we send away the mother before taking her young so as to inculcate within ourselves the all-important trait of compassion towards our fellow man. If we act with cruelty to birds and animals, we will end up doing the same with the human beings around us.

A similar idea can be found in the halachah (Jewish law) that the challah on the Shabbos table must be covered while the Kiddush blessing is recited over wine. One of the reasons why we cover the challah is so as not to “shame” it. At most meals during the week, HaMotzie is the first blessing recited and bread is the first food eaten. When Kiddush is recited at the Shabbos meal, the wine ‘usurps’ the place of the bread and moves into the #1 spot, so we cover the challah to hide its shame. [Another reason why we place a cover on the challah is to remember the miracle of the Manna in the desert which fell from Heaven sandwiched between two layers of dew.]

The following story is told about the great Rabbi Yisroel Salanter (1810-1883), founder of the Mussar (Jewish Ethics) movement:

Rabbi Yisroel was once stranded in Kovno for Shabbos. Everyone wanted to host him, but he chose to spend the Shabbos at the home of a baker who had no children to feed, so he would not take away anyone's portion of food. The baker was an observant Jew but hardly a man of intelligence. As he ushered his esteemed guest into his house, he shouted at his wife, "Why are the challahs not covered? How many times must I remind you to cover the challahs?" The poor woman, recognizing her distinguished guest, hurried to cover the challahs with tears in her eyes. When the baker asked Rabbi Yisroel to do the honors by reciting the Kiddush, the Rabbi first asked him, "Can you tell me why we cover the challahs?" "Of course," replied the baker. "Every child knows the answer. When there are many different foods on the table, the first blessing is always made over the bread, after which no other blessing need be made. On Friday night, however, the first blessing has to be made over the wine. In order not to shame the challah, who expects the blessing to be made over her, we must cover her over until after the sanctification of the wine." Rabbi Yisroel looked at the baker incredulously. "Why do your ears not hear what your mouth is saying?" he asked. "Do you think that our Jewish tradition does not understand that a piece of dough has no feelings and would never become embarrassed? Understand that our laws are trying to sensitize us to the feelings of human beings, our friends, our neighbors, and especially our wives!"

These two mitzvos – the sending away of the mommy bird and the covering of the challah on the Shabbos table – are representative of the rest of the commandments whose primary purpose and goal is to teach and inculcate within us good character traits and values, so that we can emulate G-d and draw closer to Him.

As the Midrash teaches us in Bereishis Rabbah (44:1): “The Holy One, blessed be He, gave commandments to the Jews for no other reason than to refine them [and their character traits] by means of their observance.”

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