Learning compassion at the edge of a birds nest

Ki Tetze

Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19

Isaiah 54:1-10

Compassion is the universal goal of the spiritual journey. Search any spiritual literature and you will find that the experience of compassion lies, gently swaddled, as the beloved child born of the spiritual path.

Compassion, however, is so commonplace a term that it is easily drained of all real meaning, a nice idea with no reality.

So how do we transform compassion into a living force, a true tenderness for all of life, the fluttering of the heart in the face of the pain of any other creature? Sometimes, this opening of the heart is a gift given to us as an act of chesed — grace, a tug at the foreskin of the heart, as the prophets like to say. But the genuine path to compassion is actually the same as the colloquial path to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.

Our sages taught that “the mitzvahs were given only for the purpose of refining humanity.” Nachmanides and other commentators teach that many of the mitzvahs of the Torah are in fact ethical and spiritual practices designed specifically to seed a compassionate nature in our hearts.

In this week’s Torah portion, the commentaries count a minimum of 16 mitzvahs that serve as compassion in action. Among them, we find this classic example: “If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest … and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. You must send away the mother and take only the young” (Deut. 22:6-7).

The compassion demanded here for the mother bird prompts our sages to create a wide-ranging principle of tzaar ba’alei chayim — the requirement to avoid causing unnecessary pain to animals.

Interestingly, the sages themselves recognize a flaw in this presentation. Surely once the mother bird returns to the nest and sees her young gone, she will experience suffering. Where, then, is the compassion in this act?

Elsewhere in the Talmud (Berachot 33b), the sages raise a more essential contradiction. Discussing the liturgy of prayer, the Mishnah states that if a prayer leader should pray, ‘Your compassion extends even to a bird’s nest,’ he must be silenced because “he is making God’s qualities into mercies when they are really only decrees.”

From this are we to learn that God’s commandments serve no ethical or spiritual edifying purpose whatsoever? That they are commandments without rationale?

Both of these contradictory conceptions of mitzvahs are interwoven in the tapestry of Jewish spiritual thought.

As for me, I find the “because I told you so” theory of mitzvahs to be untenable. I seek obedience born of meaning, a path that polishes my spirit and trains me to become more God-like. I find comfort and guidance in the ruling of Maimonides that “included the attributes of the Holy One which we are commanded to imitate is ‘God’s mercies rests over all God’s creatures.'”

Walking in the fields, a chance encounter with a bird’s nest reminds me of the Creator’s decree that all of life is interconnected and allows compassion to flow across the boundaries that separate the human from the animal. At that moment, the possibility of a callous act to take the young in the presence of the mother awakes my compassionate heart. An audacious thought, spurred on by the teaching of Maimonides, also occurs: Although the Torah permits me to take the eggs, perhaps the truly compassionate act would be not to take them at all.

For if the decree of the Torah has gone so far in awakening compassion within me, should I not strive to extend my compassion as far as possible? Is this not what Maimonides means when he teaches that we are commanded to imitate God’s attributes?

And if these are my thoughts standing at the bird’s nest, how then shall I act when, walking on the streets, I encounter another human being?