Commentary on Parashat Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 21:10 - 25:19
If you chance upon a bird’s nest along the way in any tree or on the ground, whether it contains young birds or eggs, and the mother is sitting upon the young birds or upon the eggs — you shall not take the mother bird together with her children. You shall surely send away (shalei’ach tishalach) the mother, and only then may you take the young for yourself; that it may go well for you, and you may prolong your days (Deut. 22:6-7).
Our Sages discern within this Torah law several surprising and far-reaching implications. Concerning the phrase shalei’ach tishalach (“you shall surely send away”), the Midrash states:
Why does the verse use a double expression? Because one who fulfills the ‘sending forth’ of this precept will be granted the privilege of ‘sending forth’ a slave to freedom. As it is written (Deut. 15:12), ‘And when you send him forth free…’ Fulfilling the precept of sending forth the mother bird also hastens the advent of the Messiah…
Rabbi Tanchuma said: Fulfilling this precept hastens the arrival of Elijah the Prophet, whose coming is associated with the expression ‘to send forth.’ As it states (Malakhi 3:23), ‘Behold, I shall send forth to you Elijah the Prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of God…’ and he shall console you as it says (ibid.), ‘He will return the hearts of parents towards children.’
At first glance, these connections may seem arbitrary. What does the act of sending away a mother bird before taking the nestlings have to do with freeing slaves, or the coming of Elijah the Prophet and the Messiah? The Midrash uses the verb tishalach (to send away) as the element that connects the issues it mentions. But this semantic link between the three verses only begs the question: What do these issues actually have in common?
Judaism and Animals
A possible answer may be found by considering Jewish teachings on compassion to animals. While the Torah clearly places humanity above the animal kingdom, it mandates respect for all creatures, forbids causing animals unnecessary suffering, and idealizes the state of peace and harmony among all living things that will prevail during the Messianic era. The term nefesh chayah (living soul) is applied to animals as well as humans (Genesis 1:21, 1:24).
The Kabbalists, too, stress the importance of compassion and respect for animals, since all things emanate from the Divine Wisdom and serve God’s Will. Perhaps the cornerstone of the Jewish attitude toward animals is the psalmist’s declaration (Psalms 145:9): “His compassion is upon all of His works.” The Talmud (Sota 14a) teaches: Because the Creator shows compassion to all creatures, so should we.
The Torah Ideal
The Jewish paradigm of a perfect world is the Garden of Eden, in which harmony and peace existed between all creatures. The curse of death had not been visited upon the world, and both humans and animals were vegetarian, both by instinct and Divine mandate. (In fact, even after the banishment from Eden humans were not permitted to eat meat until after the great flood during the generation of Noah.) This Eden-like state of harmony and peace will be restored in the Messianic era. As the prophet Isaiah states (11:6-7), “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb…the lion shall eat straw like the ox…”
According to Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel, all creatures will then return to their original vegetarian diet, for the tikkun (spiritual rectification) accomplished by meat-eating will have been fully accomplished.
Of course, the central feature of the Messianic era is freedom from political subjugation. The entire Jewish people will return to the land of Israel, where at last they will dwell in peace. All conflict between nations will cease.
Beyond this, human nature itself will be transformed, as it is written, “A new heart I shall give you, and a new spirit I shall put within you; I shall remove the heart of stone from your flesh, and I shall give you a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26).” The prophets envisioned a future world in which compassion, not selfishness and strife, will proliferate. “They shall neither hurt nor destroy upon all My holy mountain, for the knowledge of God shall fill the earth as the water covers the seas (Isaiah 11:9).”
From Study to Deeds
Given this, we can see a profound connection between the mitzvah of sending forth the mother bird, the freeing of a slave, and the advent of the Messiah. According to another Midrash (Devarim Rabbah 6:1), this precept is an act of compassion:
Rabbi Yudan ben Pazi stated: Why is an infant circumcised after eight days? The Holy One, blessed be He, extended mercy to him by waiting until he became strong enough. And just as the Holy One, blessed be He, has mercy on human beings, so does He have mercy on animals; as it is written, ‘A bullock, a lamb, or a kid goat, when it is born, it shall be seven days under its mother, but from the eighth day and thenceforth it may be accepted as an offering to God (Leviticus 22:27).’ Not only this, but the Holy One, blessed be He, declared, ‘(A mother cow) and her young you shall not slaughter on the same day (Leviticus 22:28).’ And just as the Holy One, blessed be He, has mercy upon beasts, so does He have mercy upon birds, as it is written (Deut. 22:6), ‘When you encounter a bird’s nest…’
Certainly the Torah wishes to ennoble us through its teachings (Avot 1:17): “The study (midrash) is not the main thing, but the deed (ma’aseh).” The practical implication of the precept of sending away the mother bird is clear: acts of compassion for other human beings (such as freeing a slave) and ultimately world peace and enlightenment are brought about by an act of compassion for animals.
Why should this be so? Perhaps because acts that bespeak an enlightened spirit are inherently Messianic. The example here is of sending away the mother bird; but this is implicitly true of all acts of compassion. A person can be compassionate only by putting aside self-concern and considering the total situation of which he or she is a part. This holistic awareness will be fully attained during the Messianic era.
The spirit that moves us to behave in a sensitive and caring manner is an extension of that revolution in human consciousness. Thus, the Midrash enjoins us to bring the Messiah by becoming attuned to this spirit and allowing it to inspire our actions. Then, to paraphrase the words of our Sages (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat, 151b), the Merciful One will surely have mercy on those who are merciful.
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Pronounced: AHVR-rah-ham, Origin: Hebrew, Abraham in the Torah, considered the first Jew.
Pronounced: MIDD-rash, Origin: Hebrew, the process of interpretation by which the rabbis filled in “gaps” found in the Torah.
Pronounced: MITZ-vuh or meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, commandment, also used to mean good deed.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.