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Mistakes, a Bird's Nest and Compassion

Well, this is embarrassing. Last week I mistakenly wrote about the wrong Torah portion.

Deuteronomy 29 is found in Nitzavim, the portion read two weeks from now. Last week I studied Nitzavim with a bat mitzvah student and my mind remained focused on our discussion. While I realize that many would be hesitant to point this mistake out to their rabbi I would be remiss if I did not confess this error—especially given this season of repentance and most especially given that last week I wrote about publicly proclaiming one’s mistakes.  Now that’s ironic—and even amusing.

We can only really correct our flaws if we declare them to others. If they remain hidden they remain flaws. If they are revealed, they can be transformed into strengths.

This week we read from Ki Tetzei. I have double and triple checked this fact. It contains the most commandments of any weekly reading. According to Moses Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher, there are 72 commandments. Unique, and perhaps most curious, among these dictums is the mitzvah regarding a bird’s nest.

The Torah proclaims: “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)

At first glance this may appear cruel. How can we take chicks or eggs from a bird’s nest? “That’s so mean!” my students often exclaim. And I usually respond, “What did you have for breakfast this morning? Did you have eggs?” We are permitted eggs. We are allowed to eat meat. Today, we have lost the connection to how our food is collected. Eggs do not grow in plastic containers. They are also not perfectly shaped and colored. Buy some eggs from a local farm and teach your children about imperfection of nature, as well as its beauty.

If we are to eat eggs, and meat, we must reacquaint ourselves with how our food is raised. And we must regain a sense of compassion toward the foods we eat. The Torah suggests that we must even show compassion toward animals. Again Moses Maimonides. It would be cruel to allow the mother bird to witness her children being taken away. Sure, it might be better to be a vegan, but Judaism sees this as unrealistic and so our eating of meat must be tempered.

Our enjoyment of eggs and sausage (I made no mistake here; I mean turkey), must be framed with a measure of compassion for the animals’ lives and even their welfare. Here is the theory. If you worry about the feelings of a mother bird, then you are more apt to worry about the feelings of other human beings. The Torah aims to teach compassion.

To be honest I am not sure this theory always works.

I sit at breakfast and eat my eggs and read about one tragedy after another: some in distant lands and others around the corner from my home. I do not think of the mother bird. And I do not think of the mothers mourning their children in Syria or Ethiopia, Huntington or San Diego.

The primary purpose of the Torah is to inculcate compassion, I remind myself. It is to teach empathy and concern.

I wish it were as easy as shooing the mother bird away.

Perhaps it must begin at breakfast.