Earth Etude for Elul 21 – Choose Life! Whose Life?
by Rabbi David Seidenberg~
Every year before Rosh Hashanah we read the ultimate Torah portion about t’shuvah, returning to God, called parshat Nitzavim. Every year we are reminded that if we turn toward God, then God will circumcise our hearts. And every year, in a section of Nitzavim that Reform congregations also read on Rosh Hashanah, we are admonished, “Choose life!,” even as we pray to be inscribed in the Book of Life.
How do we choose Life? A few weeks before Rosh Hashanah, in parshat Ki Teitzei, we are given concrete instruction.
“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, the Torah ascribes some measure of sacredness to 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). 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)
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: “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.”
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. 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 principle 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.
On Rosh Hashanah we pray to be sealed in the Book of Life. The Torah in parshat Nitsavim tells us, “See! I have set before you: Life and Good and Death and Harm. Choose Life! Uvacharta bachayyim! / בחיים ובחרת!” The Torah doesn’t tell us, “Choose your own life / חייך” or “choose your people’s life / עמך חיי .” Rather, it says, choose Life itself – the principle of Life, the value of all Life.
If we are 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. May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life.
Rabbi David Seidenberg is the creator of neohasid.org and the author of Kabbalah and Ecology: God’s Image in the More-Than-Human World. He has ordination from both the Conservative movement and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and is an avid dancer and liturgist. Get his prayer for voting at http://neohasid.org/resources/votingprayer/. A longer version of this column was published in Times of Israel at https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/choose-life-whose-life/. Further discussion of shiluach hakein (including the disastrous belief among some Haredim that it is a mitzvah to shoo away the mother and take the eggs even if one does not need them) can be found in Kabbalah and Ecology, pp. 145-148.
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