”Animals have personalities and minds and feelings’’
– Jane Goodall.
In two long verses dedicated to the cause of kindness to birds this week’s Torah portion prohibits the capture of a mother bird crouching over her nestlings. In effect, the Torah prohibits explicitly not only getting our hands off the mother bird, but implicitly also any hostile action against the nestlings despite the ostensible permission to ”take [them] for yourself” . Why, both the fledglings and the eggs have no value on one’s dinner table; the chicks have meagre flesh and the fertilized eggs en route to hatching are inedible too. The Torah thus prohibits effectively its followers from harming a bird’s nest.
In using the word “children’’ (literally “sons’’ – ha-banim) for the chicks in the edict part, the same word that stands for human boys, the one who sought to remove “the young’’ (chicks or efrochim – fledglings) would have to cope with the idea of killing “children”, rather than “chicks’’. This word might sensitize him to the family dynamics in the nest, not unlike his own.
Even if the would-be nest usurper callously chose, as he must do, to shoo away the mother bird – an arduous task! — to such a distance where she cannot see her nest being violated, Maimonides still forbids him from taking such an action. Why, upon her eventual return to an empty nest the mother would feel the pain of her loss, a gratuitous pain that ought to be avoided.
The 19th Century Torah commentator (known by the alias) Hanatsiv explains that capturing the mother is verboten because her compassion for the nestlings compelled her to stay put in order to defend them, rather than fly the coop for her personal safety. It would be, therefore, an egregious heartlessness on the usurper’s part if the bird’s brave motherly instincts meant nothing to him as he went on and with no moral inhibitions captured her.
Another 19th Century commentator, Shadal, adds that by refraining from capturing the dam the Torah teaches that no act of righteous behavior should be maliciously exploited. Hence, a would-be capturer of such a mother would internalize that her displayed grit for her fledglings was not a senseless attribute that backfired at her. He would see that parental compassion and sacrifice were duly rewarded, rather than glibly ignored and foiled.
Elsewhere the Torah bars three other insensitive or cruel practices to mother animals:
*Sacrificing on the altar a calf that is not eight days old yet
*Eating concurrently meat and milk
*Same day slaughter of parent and child
All four prohibitions appear “to be a sense that the order of nature is violated when the destruction of life includes the biological producer and nurturer of life’’ comments Robert Alter. Indeed, Nachmanides discerns a Biblical concern about the elimination of two generations that would envisage the extinction of the whole species, or akin to its “mass extermination’’ (the Stone edition of the Chumash). Nachmanides agrees that these dam-based laws would help in preventing species’ destruction, while Sefer Ha-chinuch posits that humanity must take to heart that God cares for all animals, so they will continue and survive, or in the words of David the Psalter: ”And His tender mercies are over all His handiworks” (Ps. 145:9).
Abarbanel, another classical Torah commentator, resembles the Biblical prohibition against destroying fruit trees for military purposes, even in the height of a war when timber is badly needed (as in last week’s Torah portion), to forbidding the capture of a mother bird so she could continue and sustain her species. In-as-much-as a tree cannot escape and seek protection behind the city’s walls, a mother bird would be reluctant to leave behind her children, not to mention that such fledglings cannot escape the nest, just like fruit trees facing an axe in times of a protracted war, when logical justifications for anything work on all four burners…
Yet, the overarching purpose, as Nachmanides avers, of these Biblical prohibitions are meant to ward off a person from developing “an evil heart”, for if the lack of compassion and the prevalence of cruelty are not contained and overcome, they would expand further in a person’s soul. The one who spared the life of the mother bird, would boost himself with compassion — a value that is not intrinsically characteristic to the human nature that is prone to choose evil from adolescence — that could only be acquired by one’s discipline and practice.
Last but not least, the Torah assures those who obey its command addressing the stumbled-on-nest “that it may go-well with you and you may prolong (your) days”, an extremely rare promise of longevity for the Bible to make in tribute to motherhood; it is akin to a similar assurance in the Decalogue for those honoring their parents which is right at the heart and the cornerstone of the “Big Ten’’. Such a reward then pairs and equalizes honoring human and bird mothers alike.
Postscript: In Ucacha, Argentina, they replaced wooden light posts with concrete ones. But they cut parts of the wooden posts in which there were woodpecker nests to attach them firmly to the corresponding concrete post, at the same height. And voila, those nests were saved to honor the love and care of a mother bird to her nestlings.