Parashat Ki Teitzei / פרשת כי־תצא

Torah Portion: Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19

This weeks Torah portion, Parashat Ki Tetzei, contains more mitzvot (commandments) than any other parashah: 74, to be precise. Mitzvot can be divided into two categories. The first category is called “ben adam l’havero” or “between one person and another person.” These mitzvot include ethical instruction that guides us in our treatment of our fellow human being in business, at home, and out in the world. An example of this would be treat all your children equally (Deut. 21:15). Mitzvot ben adam l’havero also comprise civil and criminal legislation that tell us what to do if someone should commit a crime, kidnapping, for instance: If a man is found to have kidnapped a fellow Israelite, enslaving him or selling him, that kidnapper shall die; thus you will sweep out evil from your midst (Deut. 24:7)

The next set of mitzvot are “ben adam lamakom,” or “between a person and God.” These mitzvot deal mostly with ritual, Shabbat, keeping kosher, and the like. They address issues of how we worship, celebrate and honor God. An example of a mitzvah between a person and God from elsewhere in the Torah would be to keep the Sabbath holy.

In the midst of the litany of mitzvot this week, all of which pertain to ben adam l’havero, we find one that, on the face of it, doesn’t seem to fit into either category:

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 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 may fare well and have a long life (Deut. 22:6)

This mitzvah clearly deals with how we treat animals. It doesn’t tell us how to interact with another person, nor does it address how we relate to God. Do we need a third category of mitzvah for this mitzvah and others like it?

I would contend that this mitzvah is, in fact, a mitzvah ben adam l’havero and ben adam lamakom. How so? In directing us to shoo away the mother before taking her little ones or her unhatched eggs, this and similar mitzvot inculcate in us a sense of compassion and empathy. If we should care enough to shoo away the mother so she won’t see us taking her progeny, even more so should we care about the feelings of human beings. From this mitzvah about ethical treatment of animals comes an awareness of how ethically to treat human beings.

In what way is this mitzvah about us and God? By shooing away the mother, we protect her from being captured or hurt and we allow her to go on reproducing. In the future, some of the mother’s eggs will hatch and bear fledglings, who themselves will live long lives and also reproduce. Thus, this mitzvah enables us to be stewards of God’s creation and so deservedly belongs in the category of ben adam lamakom.

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