We are not individuals, no more than birds are. We and they are individuated out of an endless sky of possibility and longing. And on a dark night we need each other to huddle against the cold.
In this week’s parashah we see one of the most famous passages in all of Torah: the case of the mother bird:
כִּ֣י יִקָּרֵ֣א *קַן־צִפּ֣וֹר ׀ לְפָנֶ֡יךָ בַּדֶּ֜רֶךְ בְּכׇל־עֵ֣ץ ׀ א֣וֹ עַל־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֶפְרֹחִים֙ א֣וֹ בֵיצִ֔ים וְהָאֵ֤ם רֹבֶ֙צֶת֙ עַל־הָֽאֶפְרֹחִ֔ים א֖וֹ עַל־הַבֵּיצִ֑ים לֹא־תִקַּ֥ח הָאֵ֖ם עַל־הַבָּנִֽים׃
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.
שַׁלֵּ֤חַ תְּשַׁלַּח֙ אֶת־הָאֵ֔ם וְאֶת־הַבָּנִ֖ים תִּֽקַּֽח־לָ֑ךְ לְמַ֙עַן֙ יִ֣יטַב לָ֔ךְ וְהַאֲרַכְתָּ֖ יָמִֽים׃
Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life. (Devarim 22.6-7)
One of the reasons that this text is so well-known is that it seems to promise a reward for the doing of a mitzvah. We are promised here, in so many words, that if you leave a mother bird alone when you are collecting its eggs, you will have a good and a long life. Very few mitzvot come with a stated reward; we are to do the mitzvot because we are part of of the committed, covenanted mitzvah community.
This is a dangerous passage, the kind that seems easy to find fault with; and that is just what happens in a well-known Talmudic story. A group of rabbis is sitting on a hill talking Torah when they see a father and son carefully shooing a mother bird away from a nest. The boy has climbed up and carefully hands down the eggs, but in his descent he slips, falls, and is killed. Of the group sitting in shock at this horror, two stand out: Rabbi Akiva, who explains that the “long life” really means the life of the world to come, and Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya, who cannot stand the contradiction, and leaves Judaism.
Two thousand years later we are still finding fault with passages that seem to us to be easily picked apart. Here is one that some congregations removed from the daily prayers because it seemed so primitive:
If you listen and submit to the obligation to love life and respect it, to serve it rather than expecting it to serve you, then the rain will fall in its season, both early and late as you need it to; you will harvest all you need to live and thrive. There will be enough for you and for all the animals, and all will be satisfied. But be careful lest you begin to worship yourself, believing that you are in control of your life and can bend Life to your will, because then the skies will be shut up, and no rain will fall, and the land will not yield sustenance, and you will perish. (Deut 11.13-17)
Both Akiva and Elisha were wrong in their day, and the early modern Jews who sought so eagerly to leave irrational aspects of religion behind were just as short-sighted. The truth is that the Torah is speaking of the collective long vision, and over time, and speaking collectively, its words are true. And we’ve come to understand how true in our own day. It’s not about life treating an individual fairly; it’s about how we’re all in this together.
This 3rd week of Elul is dedicated to the climate emergency
If you do not obey, the rain will not fall and the crops will not grow
Sunrise Movement – the Climate Revolution
We all have something to lose to climate change, and something to gain in coming together. The Sunrise Movement seeks to stop climate change and create millions of good-paying jobs in the process. We grow our power through talking to our communities. We are people from all paths of life. We are nonviolent in word and deed.