The Sefardi liturgy for Yom Kippur includes this confession: “I did not choose life.” The Torah admonishes us to choose life in parshat Nitzavim, which we read every year before Rosh Hashanah, even as we are about to pray to be inscribed in the Book of Life. And a few weeks before Rosh Hashanah, in parshat Ki Teitzei, we are given concrete instruction about how to choose Life.
“When a bird’s nest is met before you in the way, in the tree or on the earth, chicks or eggs, and the mother is crouching over [them], you will not take the mother on top of the children. You must send [away] the mother, and the children you will take, so that it will be well for you, and you will make your days long.” (Deuteronomy 22:6-7)
As we find elsewhere in Torah, the bond of life that may exist between a parent and child, among any of the species where this bond is strong (i.e. most mammals and birds), has a measure of sacredness. This sacredness extends to not slaughtering parent and child in one day, not separating the suckling from its mother for seven days, and making a separation between the flesh and milk of any mammal. But the question of why it is important to respect that bond has led to widely varying interpretations.
For Maimonides, shiluach hakein, sending away the nesting bird, means we are commanded to understand and protect the feelings of love that exist between the animal mother and the animal child. (Guide for the Perplexed, 3:48) (And if you ask, why not protect the bond of life by not molesting the parent bird or the chicks at all?, Maimonides has an answer: “In most cases [having to chase away the mother] will lead to people leaving everything alone…”)
But Nachmanides, also known as Ramban, has a different way of interpreting this verse. In the second of three interpretations in his Torah commentary, he explains that: “scripture does not permit any slaughter that would uproot a species, even though it permits slaughter of a particular species; and behold, one who kills mother and children in one day, or takes them even when they are free to fly, is like one who cuts off that very species.”
שלא יתיר הכתוב לעשות השחתה לעקור המין אע”פ שהתיר השחיטה במין ההוא, והנה ההורג האם והבנים ביום אחד או לוקח אותם בהיות להם דרור לעוף כאלו יכרית המין ההוא
Ramban’s comment is astonishing on more than one level. The first is that taking a single bird and its offspring could almost never cause the extinction of a species. Only by repeatedly and continually taking the reproducing generation along with its offspring could a species become extinct. So Ramban is forbidding a single instance of slaughter, and kol vachomer other actions by a single person, that would only cause grave harm if extrapolated to many cases.
The second is that in Ramban’s time, the idea that a species could become extinct was unimaginable. All the philosophers, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, more or less agreed that God’s providence extended over every species to keep them in existence. The question that philosophers debated was to what degree God’s providence extended over the individuals of a species, most believing that such providence only extended to some human beings. Yet Ramban asserted that any action that could imaginably cause an extinction must be prohibited, even though as far as he knew, such extinctions were not possible.
Ramban’s principle is a kind of environmental categorical imperative. It has similar implications to the fundamental principle of Aldo Leopold’s“land ethic”, which is this: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” (Read Leopold’s essay, “The Land Ethic”, on neohasid.org.)
To take either principle as the measuring stick against which to measure all human endeavor would transform our policy-making, our personal choices, even our civilization. If we chose not to take any action that, if it were extrapolated, would cause ecosystem death or species extinction, what would have to change?
To give two clear examples: Single-use forever-loose plastic would probably never have been manufactured. Would anyone ever even dream of a product meant to be used only once that was made out of material that can never decay or become part of the cycle of life?
And no one would have ever considered clearcutting a forest, since by necessity this entails killing the parents and offspring of all generations of hundreds of species at one time.
Ramban gives two other explanations for the commandment of shiluach hakein, both of which harmonize with this one. The first is that anyone who would take the mother with the children becomes inured to cruelty, and the Torah is teaching us to not be cruel. The second is that Torah wants us to honor the “Mother of the World” by respecting mothers. In Kabbalah, the Mother of the World of course is the Sefirah of Binah or Understanding, the womb principle that gestates the divine potential to ultimately create this world of multiplicity and interdependence.
This is really a Kabbalistic way of saying we must honor the priniciple of Life at the highest level – and that we do so by honoring this principle on the most concrete level in how we care for individual animals.
Every year, as we read the ultimate Torah portion about t’shuvah, returning to God, parshat Nitzavim, we are admonished to choose Life. In the words of Moshe Rabbeinu: “See! I have set before you: Life and Good and Death and Harm”. Choose Life! Uvacharta bachayyim! / ובחרת בחיים!” The Torah doesn’t tell us, “Choose your own life / חייך” or “choose your people’s life / חיי עמך”. Rather, it says, choose Life itself – the principle of Life, the value of all Life.
If we are going to “choose Life”, as the Torah commands, then this means choosing Life for all species, not just for ourselves. It is only by doing so that “you and your seed will live”. Shiluach hakein is rightly seen as a teaching about how to do that. That is why the second verse about shiluach hakein ends,“You must send away the mother…so that it will be well for you, and you will make your days long.”
This is what we now call sustainability. Our ancestors were well-practiced at what we seem to have forgotten: we cannot choose Life without choosing to act on behalf of all life, to act in harmony with the land upon which we are only sojourners, to act with concern for all species. Choosing more life for the world is the best way, the only way, to find more life for ourselves, for our children and our people, for our species.
A version of this column will also be published as part of Earth Etudes, a series of Torah teachings for each day of the month of Elul related to the Earth. You can see the current day’s teaching, along with all the previous days, at this link. You can also order a book collection of previous years’ etudes here. Further discussion of shiluach hakein (including the disastrously mistaken belief among some Haredim that it is a mitzvah to shoo away the mother and take the eggs even when one does not need them) can be found in Kabbalah and Ecology, 145-148.