Thursday, September 4, 2014

Ki Tetze, Birds and the Breath of Goodness

According to Moses Maimonides this week’s portion contains 72 mitzvot, far more than any other Torah portion.  Within this plethora of commandments we discover: “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.”  (Deuteronomy 22:6-7)

This is an interesting command.  It is important to note that the Torah does not just deal with ritual life but with ethical obligations.  Moreover the Torah’s concern extends not just to human beings but to all of God’s creatures.  Still, one wonders how this act is a measure of compassion.  The tradition reasons that the mother must be sent away so that she does not see her young taken.  Human beings are allowed to make use of God’s creation, and even creatures, but with this permission comes certain responsibilities.  We must not cause undo suffering to animals.  The Torah therefore takes the mother’s pain into account.

This is why this mitzvah is connected to long life.  This reward mirrors that promise offered for the commandment to honor parents.  The vast majority of mitzvot do not have such a reward attached to them.  These are two of the few instances.  Of course this raises the question.  If I do not show honor to my parents, if I fail to let the mother bird go, will I not be rewarded with long life?

The Talmud offers a story.  Elisha ben Abuyah, a colleague of Rabbi Akiva, once saw a young boy climb a tree to fetch eggs from a nest.  In observance of the command, he shooed the mother bird away before taking the eggs.  When climbing down from the tree he fell and died.  Elisha saw this and rejected his Jewish faith.  How could there be a good and just God, he reasoned, and apparently said very loudly.       

Such is the question that has occupied Jewish thinkers for generations.  While Elisha’s is among the most radical that our tradition preserves (he is deemed a heretic by his colleagues but not written out of their book), I prefer the reasoning of Moses Maimonides, the great medieval philosopher. 

He writes in his Guide of the Perplexed:  “Consider the environment in which we have our being: the more urgently a thing is needed by living beings, the more abundantly (and cheaply) it is found.  The less dependent on anything, the rarer (and more expensive) it is.  Thus the things man needs most, for instance are air, water, and food…  This is a mark of God’s goodness and bounty.” (Guide, III:12) 

When we look at the world we tend to forget that even the air we breathe is a gift from God.  We make long lists of all the things we need (among them, a long, healthy life) and when we don’t receive but one of these we ask, where is God?  Maimonides counsels us that we need to look at the world differently, we need to look at God differently.  Look at how plentiful the air we breathe is.  Look at how quenching is the water I drink.

I admit his advice is sometimes difficult, and challenging, to follow.  Most people don’t know that Maimonides faced a similar struggle.  Fourteen years prior to penning these words, his brother drowned in a ship wreck in the Indian Ocean.  In addition to losing his only brother much of the family fortune was lost.  Maimonides was forced to devote more time to his medical profession in order to support his family, as well as his brother’s. 

For a full year following his brother’s death the person who most believe was the greatest Jewish thinker who ever lived spent a year in bed, depressed beyond all consolation.  He wrote to a friend: “Now my joy has been changed into darkness; [my brother] has gone to his eternal home, and has left me prostrated in a strange land.  Whenever I come across his handwriting in one of his books, my heart grows faint within me, and my grief reawakens.”

With the litany of our tradition’s blessings it is curious that the no blessing is mandated for water and air, and yet they are as much a sign of God’s bounty as the hallah we will taste, and bless, tomorrow evening.

Take counsel from Maimonides’ words.  Take heart from his life.

Sometimes it really does take years to see again the beauty and wonder in God’s world.

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