THIS SITE IS NO LONGER SUPPORTED            בית מדרש הוירטואלי עבר דירה
PLEASE FIND US AT OUR NEW TORAT HAR ETZION WEBSITE                                  
     English shiurim @          לשיעורים בעברית @

Relating to Our Surroundings

  • Harav Yehuda Amital








Relating to our Surroundings

Translated by Kaeren Fish



"If you happen upon a bird's nest on the way, in any tree or on the ground, with chicks or eggs, and the mother is sitting upon the chicks or upon the eggs, you shall not take the mother together with the young. You shall surely send the mother away, and take the young for yourself, in order that it may be well with you and that you may prolong your days." (Devarim 22:6-7)


"Honor your father and your mother in order that your days be lengthened upon the land which the Lord your God gives to you." (Shemot 20:11)


The midrash (Devarim Rabba 6:2) explains that God did not reveal to us the reward for each separate mitzva so that we would not focus only on mitzvot that carry a great reward while ignoring those whose reward is negligible. He compares this to a king who hires workers to handle different types of trees in his orchard. When their work is finished he pays each a different wage in accordance with the type of tree he worked with. They ask him why he did not specify the wage for each type of tree at the outset, and he explains that if he had done so, no one would have agreed to occupy himself with the low-paying jobs.


However, the midrash points out, there are two mitzvot which do have their reward specified in the Torah: the exceptionally difficult mitzva of kibbud horim - honoring parents, and the exceptionally easy mitzva of shiluach ha-ken - banishing the mother bird from the nest. The reward promised for both of these is long life.


Apparently, what God wants us to understand is that the reward for a mitzva is not detemined only according to its level of difficulty. There is a huge discrepancy between these two mitzvot in terms of the effort, hardship and investment involved, and yet their reward is the same. The reward must therefore be determined according to other criteria which are not known to us, and therefore we must fulfill all of the mitzvot, not concentrating only on those which require much effort.


The Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim III:48) writes that the reason for the mitzva of sending away the mother bird is to prevent suffering to animals. He goes on to suggest that by the time the person has chased away the mother bird he may realize that he does not really need the chicks after all – they are usually not fit for consumption in any case – and he will leave them alone. This tells us that there is no mitzva to take chicks and to chase away the mother bird every time we happen upon a nest. Ideally, we should not be taking chicks from their nests at all, but if a person does want to take them, he is obligated to send away the mother bird first. (This accords with Rav Kapach's commentary on the Rambam, contrary to those who maintain that one is obligated to take the chicks.)


But what about the long life promised as reward? Does the person who relinquishes the chicks also relinquish the reward? Seemingly, by not taking the chicks one is certainly worthy of the reward – such that this person receives a reward without doing anything at all.


From the Rambam here we learn that we must take into account not only the physical suffering of animals – such as in the mitzva: "If you see the donkey of him who hates you lying under its burden, you shall not pass him by; you shall surely help with him to release it" (Shemot 23:5) – but also their anguish. This is reflected in the prohibition of muzzling an ox as it treads corn (Devarim 25:4), and some of the commentaries also place the prohibition of plowing with an ox and a donkey together in the same category (since the ox chews the cud and the donkey sees this and wants to eat too; others explain that the donkey suffers physically, because the ox is stronger and can progress faster).


The Ramban writes that the reason for the mitzva of sending away the mother is not God's concern for the animal, but rather His desire to implant this concern within us, and to educate us not to be cruel. (The Rambam can be understood as saying this as well.) Rashi (ad loc.) cites Chazal's teaching that the introduction to the mitzva – "If you happen upon…" – means that a person need not seek out a bird's nest in order to fulfill the mitzva; it is fulfilled only if he happens to come upon a nest. It doesn't prove anthing if a person looks for a bird's nest, and upon finding one, chases away the mother bird and takes the chicks. This does not achieve education towards compassion. The point is to do this spontaneously, upon encountering the situation: here the person must overcome his initial instincts and teach himself to be kind to the bird.


Concerning the prohibition of sha'atnez, Rav Kook explains that while the Torah does permit us to use animals in various ways, and even to slaughter and eat them (since the time of Noach), we should not regard this license as equivalent to the exploitation or consumption of plants, which has much greater legitimacy. Wool comes from animals, while flax comes from plants, and the Torah forbids their combination in a single garment in order to keep us aware of the distinction between using plants and using animals.


The same message concerning this distinction applies to current events. On the one hand, the world outside is in uproar, people are killed in terror attacks, all sorts of political plans and counter-plans are underway, etc. At the same time, the yeshiva is busy with preparations for the period of selichot and spiritual stock-taking. One might say that this contrast is highlighted in the chapter from Tehillim we recite twice a day during this period: "The Lord is my Light and my Salvation, whom shall I fear? … When evildoers come upon me to eat my flesh…" (Tehillim 27:1-2). David must fight against his enemies, and he trusts that God will help to bring him victory. (When a child is afraid of monsters at night, we turn on the light and show him that there is nothing there; likewise, when God is our light, we can be confident that in such great illumination we have nothing to fear from our enemies.) However, David immediately goes on to shed his soldier’s armor and talk like a rosh yeshiva: "One thing I ask of the Lord… to sit in the Lord's house all the days of my life…." Then he reverts back to military mode: "And now shall my head be lifted above my enemies…." And again the rosh yeshiva: "For You my heart has said, 'Seek My face.'" Then the military voice again: "Do not deliver me into the will of my enemies."


David interweaves both worlds, and so must we. We must prepare ourselves intensively for the Yamim Noraim and engage in soul-searching, but at the same time remain aware of and sensitive to what is going on around us. We must take an interest in events and ask God to help us in these areas, too. We must not forget the demands of this period of Selichot, and we must also not forget or ignore what is happening to Am Yisrael at this time.


"For my father and my mother have abandoned me" – there are intimate matters which a person is embarrassed to discuss even with his parents; David asks to 'discuss' them with God. "May my speech be sweet to Him; I rejoice in the Lord" (Tehillim 104:34). Sometimes a person is forced to hear something against his will. Someone comes to ask something and talks at length, until the listener is already tired of listening but feels bad about sending him away, and therefore continues listening, for lack of any alternative. David asks that his speech should be 'sweet' to God, that God should be happy to hear him and not regard him as a pest who goes on and on. He asks that God should be like a mother who is always glad to listen to her child talking about his experiences, never wanting him to leave her in peace.


(This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit on Shabbat parashat Ki Tetze 5757 [1997].)