Shayna Abramson

What Do a Bird’s Nest, the Occupation, and Asylum Seekers Have in Common?

There are two commandments listed in the Torah as carrying the reward of a long life: 1. Respecting one’s parents 2. Sending a mother-bird away from the nest before taking her eggs or her chicks.

The first commandment remains one of the most difficult to keep — it is often hardest to be respectful towards those who are closest to us, especially when issues of independence, responsibility, and power come into the mix, as they often do for parent-child relationships. The two traditional rationales behind this mitzvah are a) a child must respect their parents out of recognition of the gift of life that their parents gave them b) God is our ultimate parent; respecting a parent is therefore practice for respecting God.

At first glance, the bird-nest mitzvah seems almost unrelated — and ridiculously easy. However, in the Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides explains that the goal of this mitzvah is to teach us to be merciful people: By taking pity on the bird and sparing it the sight of seeing its children snatched, we are training ourselves to take mercy on humans. If part of the goal of the mitzvot is to train us in emulating the Divine, this makes perfect sense. As Maimonides says in interpretation of the Biblical commandment to “Walk in His ways”, “Just as God is merciful, so too, you shall be merciful”. Viewed from this lens, the commandment to honor parents can also be seen as a form of imitating God, who treats humankind with respect, as it says in Psalms: “What is humanity that you should remember him, or a human being that you should count him? Yet you have made him slightly less than God; you have crowned him with respect and glory.” This verse refers to the unique image of God implanted in every human being, dating back to the creation of Adam in the book of Genesis. That image is what inspires us to constantly yearn to be Godly -indeed, it was Eve’s desire to be like God that led her to eat from the forbidden fruit, showing that both how ancient that desire is, and how, in addition to bringing us to religious and spiritual heights, it can also sometimes lead us astray, like Nadav and Avihu who brought a “strange fire” before God.

When I sit down to write, I pray that my words are not a strange fire. I whisper the words, “God: Open my lips, and let my mouth burst forth with your praise”, and I think of the High Holidays liturgy, where we ask God to accept the “offerings of our mouth”, building on a Jewish tradition that words have now replaced sacrifices — which shows the high esteem that rabbis gave language, preempting a modern academic trend by 2,000 years.

So it is with trepidation that I turn to the second part of this piece: If the commandment of sending a mother bird away before taking her chicks/eggs is an exercise in mercy, that gives us a useful framework for viewing the Occupation. The Occupation is essentially the opposite: An exercise that strengthens our cruelty and indifference muscles. As a society, we become accustomed to going about our daily lives while denying other people’s realities. By sending our youth to become Occupiers, we thrust them into situations where their safety may depend upon their being indifferent, or cruel. Although you may disagree with Breaking the Silence’s goals and methods, they have hit upon a major fact: Many soldiers sent to be part of the Occupation come back traumatized (including soldiers who identify as right-wing). Their trauma stems precisely from the fact that they are kind people, forced into ethically dubious situations.

Over the past 50 years — i.e., since the start of the Occupation — Israeli society has become much more capitalist, severely downgrading the social safety net it offers underprivileged populations. We revel in our sovereignty over the Temple Mount, while ignoring the deepening divides between the haves and the have-nots, yet, in God’s own words, taking care of society’s weakest members is more important than offering sacrifices. “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? … Bring no more vain oblations; it is an offering of abomination unto Me;…Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings … Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah, chapter 1)

The Torah commands us not to hand a slave back to their master, and to be kind to strangers, because we were strangers in Egypt. Yet Israel is on the brink of deporting 40,000 asylum seekers, strangers who came to us seeking refuge -some of whom escaped state-slavery in Eritrea. Israel refuses to set up a proper system to process their paperwork to decide who is a real refugee entitled to permanent residency, and who is not, choosing instead to chuck out the whole lot.

What is especially disturbing about these two examples, is that they are policies associated with the rise of the right-wing, a political camp largely affiliated with the Orthodox Jewish community in Israel, which claims to be representing Torah values.

I’m not saying that the Occupation is the root cause of all of Israel’s other policy missteps. I am saying however, that by making us accustomed to ignoring oppression in the West Bank and Gaza, the Occupation conditions us to be less aware of  oppression in general, including oppression within Israel. Think of  spending time in a kitchen that stinks: Rotting food combines with the odor of a skunk who has taken up residence. Then, you go into your living room, which smells slightly, because you haven’t cleaned it in a week, but you don’t even notice, because compared to the kitchen, it’s a breath of fresh air. You wind up forgetting to clean-but you probably would have noticed, and cleaned your living-room, if you weren’t desensitized to slight odors from inhaling the heavy kitchen fumes. The stinky kitchen didn’t cause  the living room to smell, but both malodorous situations are correlated, because the kitchen fumes make you less likely to notice and take action about the living room situation. The problem is, that if you never clean the living-room, it will begin to stink, as well.

Similarly, when it comes to Israeli policy, the Occupation means that the level of oppression a policy has to reach before it bothers us is higher than it otherwise would be. Additionally, we are more likely to put up with oppression that we do notice, just as we sometimes notice the Occupation, but put up with it anyway -like a bad scent we have grown accustomed to.

Even if one believes that the Occupation is necessary, that’s not an excuse for ignoring the cost -not just on the Palestinians, but also, on Israeli society:

In addition to accustoming us to oppression, the Occupation also accustoms us to feelings of helplessness and inaction. We recognize its moral dubiousness, but feel helpless to change the situation, because doing so endangers Israeli security -and by extension, our lives -or, because it’s up to the leaders to effect change – or perhaps, only up to the Palestinian leaders, because it’s their fault that there can be no compromise. This feeling of dis-empowerment, a product of the right-wing rhetoric listed above, is the antithesis of the Zionist movement, which was meant to empower a dis-empowered people.

These feelings of helplessness translate into domestic policy as well. Sure, that looks unjust, but what can we do about it? We’ve become so used to shrugging our shoulders and accepting the status quo when it comes to the Occupation, that we start doing the same thing when it comes to other policy issues. The abdication of responsibility becomes addictive.

This is the siren song of idol worship. The rabbis said that the Jewish people turned to idol worship during the times of the first temple in order to excuse themselves from prohibitions on murder and from sexual prohibitions- in other words, to excuse themselves of responsibility towards their fellow human beings.  Judaism, on the other hand, can be characterized as absolute responsibility, whether as absolute responsibility towards the halachik system (including halachot governing interpersonal relations) as the will of God qua Yeshayahu Leibowitz, or as absolute responsibility to the face of the Other as the face of God qua Emmanuel Levinas.

If idol worship can be seen as absolute lack of responsibility, perhaps we can re-frame both the commandment to honor one’s parents and the commandment to send away a bird before taking its young as absolute responsibility:

Parents are the people we grow up with; honoring them means being respectful 24/7, which is much harder than spending 5 minutes being nice to a homeless person we see on the street. Sometimes, at precisely the moment we are busy building our own lives, we find our obligations to our parents increasing, as they need help navigating the difficulties of getting older. In other words, honoring one’s parents is an absolute responsibility in time, both in the sense of being a 24/7 obligation, and in the sense of being an obligation that lasts a lifetime.

Sending the bird away, by contrast, is an absolute obligation towards matter, showing that our responsibility extends to all of God’s creations, even to the bird we happen to see by the side of the road.

By representing absolute responsibility, these commandments represent the essence of Judaism, which is why the Torah signifies their importance by proclaiming that they incur a reward of living a long life.

However, this absolute responsibility extends towards other realms as well, including the building of a just society – which means asking ourselves what roles the Occupation, as well as economic and refugee policies play in our mission to create a Godly society, that emulates the Divine respect and mercy embedded in the unique image of God that resides in each and every one of us.

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.
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