(photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
In this week’s Torah portion, we come across the famous mitzva that has provoked endless debates and discussion throughout the generations – the mitzva of “shiluach haken” – sending away the mother bird before taking her young. The Torah says as follows: “If a bird’s nest chances before you on the road, on any tree, or on the ground, and [it contains] fledglings or eggs, if the mother is sitting upon the fledglings or upon the eggs, you shall not take the mother upon the young. You shall send away the mother, and [then] you may take the young for yourself, in order that it should be good for you, and you should lengthen your days.” (Deuteronomy 22:6-7) The Mishna (Tractate Brachot, chapter 5, mishna 3) makes special reference to this: “One who says: ‘To the nest of the bird does Your compassion reach!’...
silence him.” The simple explanation of the words of the Mishna are that a person should not assume that the reason for the mitzva of sending the mother bird away is as seems from the simple appearance of the mitzva, that G-d is instructing us to have compassion for living creatures. Therefore, whoever says this should be silenced, meaning – opposed.
But did our learned sages accept this explanation in the words of the Mishna? The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, one of the greatest Jewish sages in history) expressed strong disagreement with this explanation in his book Guide for the Perplexed.
As was his method, the Rambam disputed different commentaries that tried to claim that there are no moral or ethical reasons behind the Torah’s mitzvot.
He cited a vast array of quotes from the Bible and from the sages which clearly imply that the purpose of all mitzvot is to benefit man, to refine him, and to raise him to higher levels. As part of this attempt, the Rambam dedicates a large section of his book to explaining the reasons for commandments, among them the mitzva of shilu’ach haken. He writes as follows: “There is no difference in this case between the pain of man and the pain of other living beings, since the love and tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning, but by imagination, and this faculty exists not only in man but in most living beings. The same reason applies to the law which enjoins that we should let the mother fly away when we take the young. The eggs over which the bird sits, and the young that are in need of their mother, are generally unfit for food, and when the mother is sent away she does not see the taking of her young ones, and does not feel any pain. In most cases, however, this commandment will cause man to leave the whole nest untouched, because [the young or the eggs], which he is allowed to take, are, as a rule, unfit for food. If the Law provides that such grief should not be caused to cattle or birds, how much more careful must we be that we should not cause grief to our fellowmen.”
(Guide for the Perplexed, section 3, chapter 48) The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman, one of the greatest Spanish sages of the 13th century) agreed with the Rambam in this discussion. In his commentary on the Torah, the Ramban quotes the Rambam and discusses his words. He opens the discussion with a quote from the Midrash implying agreement with those who negate the existence of reasons for mitzvot. The Midrash says, “Does G-d really care if the animal is slaughtered from the back or the front of the neck? The mitzvot were only given to refine G-d’s creatures.” But the Ramban insists: Is this so? Do the mitzvot indeed have no logical reasoning and were given only to test if G-d’s creatures are adhering to G-d’s command? The Ramban adamantly rejects this explanation and writes: “And because the reason... that we should not have a cruel and pitiless heart... is the issue that the Rabbi (the Rambam) decreed in mitzvot, that they have a reason, is most elucidated, for each one has a reason, and a purpose, and a repair of man... and this is the meaning of ‘letzaref bahen’ – to refine them – that they should be like refined silver; as the goldsmith refines the silver – his deeds are not without reason, but in order to remove from it any base metal, so the purpose of the mitzvot is to remove from our hearts any bad belief or improper quality.”
(Ramban commentary on Deuteronomy) Meaning, according to the Ramban, the commandments are meant to “refine” man, to clean him and purify him and remove negative beliefs and qualities.
Through the mitzvot, man repairs his qualities and cruelty is replaced by compassion.
The commandment of shilu’ach haken and the conclusions reached by our sages regarding this mitzva teach us about the high level of sensitivity that the Torah wishes us to have toward animals. As the Rambam stated, there is no difference between the pain of a person and that of other creatures.
Though there is a great difference between man and animals in that man has a conscience and wisdom that give him other roles and responsibility for his actions, this does not mean that it allows him to cause animals sorrow for no reason. This sensitivity toward living things emphasizes man’s unique ability to control his actions and make moral decisions, even when those go against his natural tendencies.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.