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The Mother Bird and our Rightful place

08/30/2020 04:38:19 PM


In the early days of the pandemic, grocery store shelves had empty spaces and rumors of ongoing food shortages abounded. We were also cautioned to limit our trips to the grocery store. So I resolved to keep my freezer stocked with essentials and my refrigerator full of food. I was grateful that I could afford to do so.

Earlier this month, on the third day after Hurricane Isaias, I stood in my stifling hot kitchen, and began pulling all the spoiled, perishable food from my refrigerator and freezer. I filled three large garbage bags, which sat for a few days in my garage, rotting.

 In my attempt to keep our home well supplied with food, I had accumulated more than I needed, resulting in nothing but bags of stinking garbage.

And so I resolved to limit the amount of perishable food that I would keep at home.  As we saw just this week, strong storms will continue to come through our region, uprooting trees and ripping off limbs.  There will be more power outages.  Nature will always have the final word.

It’s not only the storms. My family in California has had to stay indoors because massive wild fires have filled the air with smoke. Breathing outside became hazardous.

Like the storms we have seen here in the East, Western wildfires have been bigger and more frequent since the turn of the millennium. Many scientists and officials link the increase in hurricanes, damaging storms and massive wildfires to human-caused climate change. 

There is a curious commandment in the Torah:  If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother bird sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go and take only the young, in order that you will fare well and have a long life.  (Deuteronomy 22: 6-7)


Another passage in the Torah prohibits sacrificing a mother animal on same day as her offspring (Leviticus 22:28).  Temple Israel’s Scholar-in-Residence, David Sperling, notes that both commandments suggest that human beings should have power over only one generation at a time.

Clearly, when our actions affect the climate of our planet, not only for our generation but for future generations, we have overstepped our bounds.

Considering the ways in which our individual and collective actions have caused harm to others is what our tradition calls us to do in this month of Elul, the month leading to the High Holy Days.

At the same time, we are meant to consider alternative ways of acting that will help to repair the wrongs we have done and set us on a better path.

Thinking about the human excesses that have led to climate change, and the Torah’s instruction about the mother bird that limits our power over other creatures suggests to me that we should better respect our limits.

This can be achieved by cultivating the virtue of humility – anavah.

 In his book Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar, Alan Morinis defines humility as to “occupy a rightful place, neither too much nor too little.”

We can take what we need – we can take the eggs or the fledgling chicks from the nest – but we are not allowed to take too much.  We are not allowed to take the mother bird together with her young.

 It can be difficult to cultivate humility, to find our “rightful place.”  It can be difficult to know when we have just what we need and no more.

With possessions, or food in the refrigerator, it may be a little easier to determine when we have just what we need and no more. It didn’t take me long to decide that I would keep no more than one week’s worth of perishable food at home. 

But cultivating humility in our relationships with others can be much more difficult.

Here is one way to begin, suggested by Alan Morinis.  He writes that one aspect of humility is to consider when and how we speak. We cultivate humility when we listen carefully, speaking only when we have something to add.

Contrast that with the common impulse to speak in order to show others how clever or insightful we are – regardless of whether our words reflect a meaningful contribution to a conversation.

Watching how we speak is a good way to begin cultivating humility, and it can lead to meaningful ends.

 May our spiritual work during this month of Elul bring us closer to finding our rightful place in the web of life on this planet and in our relationships with each other.



Thu, June 30 2022 1 Tammuz 5782