When I was in college, I spent one year studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. This was an amazing, eye-opening, growth and learning experience in so many ways beyond the classroom.
One of the things I experienced was a whole new-to-me way of learning called chevruta. Chevruta comes from the word chaver, or friend, and is basically studying with a partner. The term is mainly used for Torah, Talmud, or other religious text study. In this situation, the two people can be equally knowledgeable/ignorant, or one partner can know more than the other, and it’s still considered learning together, not a teacher/student relationship. It’s about questions and thinking and exploring the text together.
There was a chevruta program offered on campus, and having never studied that way and never really studied Jewish texts, I decided to sign up. The program paired new students with local English speaking college-age students who knew more about text study than we did so that we weren’t totally blind going in.
My new chevruta’s name was Bracha. Bracha was just a couple of years older than I was. She had moved from Florida to Israel with her family when she was in elementary school and spoke fluent English and Hebrew. She was Orthodox (I was (am) not), and familiar with chevruta learning and she brought in the text to study.
I remember it being very interesting, though I don’t actually remember what we studied. I do, however, remember what she told me of something that was happening in her life at the time.
She was studying in a place called a michlala, which is basically a yeshiva for girls/women. Even though it wasn’t far from her home, she had a dorm room and a roommate there and people in charge of the school as well as the housing. Because this was a very religious school, it was run by a rabbi, and probably had other rabbis on staff, but definitely a lot of learned people.
One day Bracha found that there was a bird’s nest on the windowsill of her dorm room. She saw that the bird had laid eggs. She didn’t know what to do.
And before I tell you what she did, I want to ask you these questions:
WHO DO YOU GO TO WHEN YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO? DO YOU ALWAYS GET GOOD ADVICE? WHAT IF YOU FOLLOW THAT ADVICE AND LATER WISH YOU’D DONE SOMETHING DIFFERENTLY?
There is a verse in the Torah – in this week’s Torah portion – which says:
“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.”
According to my memory of my study session with Bracha, there are also laws extrapolated from this verse which specify that when taking the eggs from a bird’s nest, you should first shoo the mother away, and then take the eggs.
There isn’t an explanation given for why to do this. In my mind, and in chevruta, it seemed to have to do with using eggs and/or birds for food. This was sort of a rule to live by when using animals or animal products for food (by the way, this was before I was vegan, actually).
Bracha went to the rabbi to ask his advice for what to do. My assumption was to do nothing. They were just little birds sitting out on the window. She was not going to eat, or in any other way, use the eggs or the bird, so… they’re just there. In my mind. So I was really surprised when I heard what the rabbi told her to do.
The rabbi advised her to open the window, shoo the mother bird away, pick up the eggs to take them, but then replace them in the nest since she didn’t need them.
My chin dropped. What? Why? Why mess with these birds? The mother wasn’t going to take care of the eggs after a person touched them. Neither Bracha nor the rabbi nor anyone else was going to use the eggs. Why not just leave them there??
The answer to that question, according to the rabbi, is that there are many mitzvot, or commandments, in the Torah, and the more of them we do, the better we are and the world is. And so when presented with the opportunity to do a mizvah, one should do it.
And so that is what Bracha did. She shooed the mother bird, brought the eggs into her room, put them back in the nest, and closed the window. The mama bird never came back.
And I wonder, what would have happened if instead of asking a rabbi, she had asked a wildlife conservation specialist? Or a park ranger? Or a vet?
My question is not meant to be anything against a rabbi. A rabbi is just giving the best advice s/he has, and different rabbis give different opinions. To me this illustrates the importance of choosing who you ask for guidance, and maybe even the importance of getting multiple opinions. As they say, when you ask a surgeon what to do, they’re going to recommend surgery.
Ultimately, we all are left making our own choices. We do the best we can to get the advice we need, and then make the best decisions we can in that moment. As we approach Yom Kippur and reflect upon the errors we’ve made over the year, I want to also take some time to reflect on the fact that we are all doing the best we can with what we have and know in each moment.
Each moment provides new opportunities for exploration, learning, and growth. May we all seize those opportunities, and be kind to ourselves when reflecting on choices we might have made differently, had the circumstances been different.