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Mother Birds

Ki Tetzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19 )

by Rabbi Yissocher Frand

Only two of the mitzvot in the Torah come with a promise of long life, kibud av va’eim, honoring parents, and sheluach hakan, sending off the mother bird before taking the fledglings. At first glance, these seem totally dissimilar and unrelated, but intuitively it seems there must be some sort of a common denominator. What can it be?

Rav Yaakov Weinberg, my Rosh Yeshivah, suggests that the common denominator may be that both mitzvot acknowledge mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice. The Torah tells us to honor our parents because of all the mesiras nefesh they have for their children. They sacrifice their time, their energy, their wealth, their hearts and souls for their children, and we must show our appreciation.

A new father once said, “When I was younger, I thought my parents did many things for me, but now that I am a father myself, I realize they did only one thing for me. They gave me their lives.” That is mesiras nefesh.

We find the same concept of mesiras nefesh in the mitzvah of sheluach hakan. Anyone who has ever tried to catch a bird knows it is virtually impossible to do so. So why does the Torah have to tell us not to take the mother bird? How would we be able to take her if we wanted to? Wouldn’t she fly away?

The answer is that the bird would not fly away when her nest is full of fledglings. She is a mother, and she is prepared to sacrifice freedom and even her life in order to remain with her children. For a person to capture that bird is prohibited, because it takes advantage of the mesiras nefesh of the maternal instinct and disrespects it. By sending away the mother first, he shows his appreciation for mesiras nefesh. In this sense, it is like honoring parents.

The Midrash comments that the two mitzvot of honoring parents and sending away the mother bird are the “easiest of the easy” and the “most difficult of the difficult,” yet they share the same reward – long life. Apparently, we cannot really know the reward of the mitzvot.

Why is sending away of the mother bird referred to as “the easiest of the easy” and honoring parents as “the most difficult of the difficult”?

The Shemen Hatov suggests that these mitzvot span the spectrum of human nature. According to the Ramban, the Torah wants us to perform the merciful act of sending away the mother bird before taking the fledglings, because this will condition us to become more merciful toward people. Mercy is a common human emotion. People instinctively feel a surge of mercy when they see an animal in distress. We should feel the same instinctive mercy when we see a person in distress, but with other people, all sorts of complicated feelings and prejudices come into play. Therefore, when we develop and reinforce our natural faculty of mercy through a compassionate act toward a mother bird, we will feel a stronger impulse to be merciful when we see a person suffering. This then is the “easiest of the easy” mitzvot, because it taps into a natural tendency in human nature.

Honoring parents, on the other hand, goes against human nature. It requires us to acknowledge all they’ve done for us and show gratitude. It requires us to admit that we needed them, that we could not have done it ourselves. This is a difficult thing for the human ego. The ego would have us view ourselves as independent, self-sufficient and invincible. We can bring ourselves to thank strangers who do small things for us now and then, because this does not really affect our egotistical self-image. But when it comes to our parents, if we admit they did anything, we also have to admit they did everything for us. Our egos do not allow us to say, “I owe you everything.” This then is the “most difficult of the difficult” mitzvot.

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