Parshas Ki Seitzei
Prayer for Redemption - It's for the Birds
In parshas Ki Seitze, we find the mitzvah of Shiluach Ha-ken, sending away
the mother bird before taking her young:
If you happen to come across a bird's nest on the way, on any tree or
the ground, young chicks or eggs, and the mother is roosting on the
young birds or the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young.
Send away the mother, and take the young for yourself; it will bring good
for you, and prolong your days. [22:6-7]
There is much discussion among the various commentaries as to the
reason for this mitzvah. Ostensibly, it is a commandment which cultivates
our sensitivities towards others, even animals. Thus we are told that
while we are permitted to take the young, we must not be insensitive
to the feelings of the mother bird, who instinctively cares for her
offspring, and suffers when she sees them slaughtered or taken away.
The Mishna seems to dispel this notion somewhat.
One who says, "May Your mercy extend to the nesting bird," we tell him
to be quiet. (Berachos 33b)
The Gemara (ibid.) explains that it is forbidden to formulate such a
prayer because it makes it seem that Hashem's commandments are some
form of compassion, when in fact they are Heavenly decrees. The
Rambam (Peirush Ha-Mishnayos, Yad Ha-chazakah [Tefilah 9:7]) explains
that were the reason for this mitzvah strictly because Hashem has
compassion on animals, He could have told us not to kill animals at all.
He did not, because the animal kingdom was given to humans for their
Ramban explains that while it is wrong to say that the mitzvah was given
because of Hashem's compassion for the mother, it is perfectly
reasonable to say that it was given in order to cultivate our sense of
compassion; that although we are permitted to use and even kill animals
for our benefit, we should do so in a way that causes them as little
distress as possible.
The Mishna itself requires some explanation. One who says, "May Your
compassion extend to the nesting bird" - what exactly is he asking for?
Hashem should have mercy on the nesting bird? Why would the Mishna
imagine someone might offer such a prayer as a result of this mitzvah?
Hashem has already shown His compassion by giving the mitzvah, now
it is up to us to have the compassion! The Tzelach explains that the
prayer is thus: "Just like You had compassion on the nesting bird, so may
You have compassion on us." If so, the Mishna really omits the main part
of the prayer. Also, why would the Mishna use the future tense, ya-gi'u
rachamecha - may Your compassion extend, and not the past tense?
The holy Zohar writes that the reason for the mitzvah of sending away
the mother is that when she returns to find her nest empty, she begins
flying from tree to tree to find her missing children, and cries out in
anguish each time she is unable to find them. This, says the Zohar,
arouses Hashem to take compassion on his Children who are in exile,
and bring them back to their "nest" in Eretz Yisrael.
If this is indeed the reason, why would it be forbidden to formulate a
prayer based on it, and ask that our mitzvah should succeed in arousing
Heavenly mercy? The Vilna Gaon writes that the Gemara and the Zohar
(Kabbalah) never disagree; if you think they do, it's only because you
have failed to truly understand one of the two. How are we to resolve
the seeming differences between the Mishna and the Zohar?
A father of a large family once left on a trip, and never returned. After
months of waiting with no news, it became clear that something terrible
must have happened. Many years passed. Eventually, his sons decided
that they would form a search party, and travel through forests and over
mountains, retracing their father's steps, in hope of finding some clue as
to what may have happened to him. They packed provisions, and set out
on a long and tiring journey. Eventually they ran out of food, and were
forced to forage for fruits and berries just to survive.
At some point, a man and his son - who were well provisioned - came
across this sorry group wandering in the forest. They looked thin and
fragile. Strangely, the excursion seemed to have taken its toll more on
the elder brothers than on the younger, who still retained a hearty
complexion. The man had compassion on them, and, after listening to
their story, he set out a lavish meal for them. To his own son's
amazement, he seemed to dote over the young brothers far more than
the older ones, even though were surely the more robust.
After they parted ways, the son asked his father why he had given
special attention to the younger boys, despite their being in better shape
both physically and emotionally. "My son," he said, "it is for exactly this
reason that my compassion was so aroused towards them. The older
boys still remember what it's like to have a father. After all these years,
they have never stopped yearning. They seek their father with every last
drop of their strength, and it has taken its toll on them. But the younger
lads, they are too young to even remember. They don't understand what
they're missing, and search for him out of a sense of obligation, not
yearning. This is why the search has not broken their spirits and bodies
the way it has their siblings. And this is why they are worthy of the most
compassion - they have never even known the feeling of having a father
to take care of them."
There are two ways Hashem's compassion can be aroused to redeem us
from exile. We can pray for redemption with all our hearts, and break
open the Gates of Heaven with our cries and supplications. We can cry
out to Hashem like David Ha-melech (Tehillim/Psalms 84:3-4) did, "My
soul yearns, indeed it pines, for the courtyards of Hashem... Even the
bird finds its home, and the free bird her nest where she laid her young -
to be at Your altars, Hashem!" The bird finds her home as she left it - yet
our Homeland has been taken away from us, our House destroyed.
What if we get to a point that, like the young boys, we no longer realize
what we're missing? We see the bird in her nest, and we feel just as
comfortable in the "nests" we have created for ourselves in exile. We
don't feel displaced, and no longer pine for the home we never knew.
It is then that Hashem contrasts us not with the bird of comfort, but
with the bird who has lost her young. Who wanders from mountain to
mountain in anguish, and finds no rest. "Look at My children, are they
not worthy of the greatest compassion? Even a bird who has lost her
young pines over them, yet My children are so far removed from their
days of glory that they no longer know what they are missing!"
In the first scenario, it is we that arouse Hashem's compassion. Why, we
beseech, should we be less than the bird? In the second, it is Hashem's
compassion for the pining bird that arouses His compassion towards us;
we no longer have the ability to properly arouse.
Perhaps the prayer, "May Your compassion extend to the nesting bird,"
leaves out the second half of the prayer, because when it reaches the
point that we must look to the pining bird to arouse Hashem's
compassion, it is no longer we that are praying - we don't know why. We
tell him to be quiet. As long as we still have the ability to pray, we must
do our best to feel and mourn our loss, and not to "make peace" with
our lack of feelings and emotion. To formulate a prayer based on
Hashem's compassion on the bird, and not on us, would be to shirk our
responsibility, and to give up our own longing and pining.
The Zohar addresses the reality that there are times when we fail to
comprehend our losses, and lose the ability to fully arouse Heavenly
compassion on our own behalf. At these times, the mitzvah of kan tzipor
stands in our stead. The mother bird, who feels her loss, can not be
consoled nor relieved of her pining, so too there is no way to mend the
Jewish heart - even if it fails to understand the source of its pain -
of bringing it back to its home and rebuilding its nest.
There are most likely times at which we feel our exile most poignantly,
and are able to beseech Hashem to return us to our land and give us
back the Beis Ha-mikdash. Perhaps there are times when the barriers of
galus so surround us that we fail to see beyond them. The mitzvah of
sending away the mother bird gives us the strength to get past our most
Have a good Shabbos.
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Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Torah.org