This week's Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, is chock full of laws that cover all kinds of topics: what to do when your neighbor's ox falls into a pit, who you are allowed to marry, even prohibitions against planting two different kinds of seeds in the same field. Some are laws we are proud to have in our Torah, like the law that prohibits abuse of a needy or destitute laborer, which explains that we must pay a laborer before sunset on the same day that the labor was done, because they need their wages. Then there are laws that are shameful, that we wish we did not find in our sacred texts, like the one that prohibits a man from wearing a "woman's clothes" or a woman wearing a "man's clothes," citing that it is abhorrent to God; a law that has been used to oppress LGBTQ+ people throughout the ages. Some of these laws we can take at their face value, and others we must interpret, explain, and work to understand the context.
There is one law that is specific to a particular context but enables us to apply the rabbinic principle of kal v'homer, which means "light and heavy," and is used in context to mean "all the more so." It was utilized by the rabbis to apply the logic inherent in some commandments to other situations. As an example, if someone is upset because you are late to a meeting, kal v'homer, all the more so, will they get upset if you miss the meeting altogether.
This week's portion offers a commandment whose logic we can similarly apply to the world we live in. We read:
"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 live a long life." (Deuteronomy 22:6-7)
It is a very specific situation. You are traveling on a random road, and you happen to come across a bird's nest. There is an inherent presumption that when you come across this bird's nest, you see it as an opportunity for food, for sustenance. In that case, what do you do?
There are two principles that will come into play. First, the prohibition against cruelty. And second, the command to conserve. As a prohibition against cruelty, we are told to let the mother go, or in some places, tradition says to chase away the mother bird away before we take the chicks or the eggs. It seems that there is something particularly inhumane about killing a mother animal with its young. This command parallels the verse we find in Leviticus 22:28 which states "Regarding an ox or a sheep, you shall not slaughter it together with its young on the same day."
Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame Dr. Tzvi Novick explains in an article that "The special cruelty in killing a 'mother together with her young' stems from the fact that it targets the relationship that stands in polar contrast to cruelty…One need not ordinarily take notice of [animals'] family bonds. But seeing the mother bird upon its young makes the parent-child relationship impossible to ignore."
The message is: don't be cruel. If this should apply to a random bird on a random road, kal v'homer, all the more so, should we concern ourselves with the feelings and emotions of other people. And if we should be careful not to be cruel to the people we happen upon, the people who are strangers to us, kal v'homer, all the more so, should we also be concerned about the people we know, our acquaintances, our community members, and our family. All the more so should we be sure that we value and respect relationships, perspectives, and the emotions of people we encounter, and the people in our lives.
We are also given this commandment to learn to conserve resources. We are told not to take the mother with its young with the reason "that you may fare well and live a long life." If we take the mother, there will never be any more eggs or chicks. If, however, we take just the eggs, the mother can continue to produce eggs into the future. This command is a warning. If we take too much, we will use up our resources with no possibility to replenish them.
If this is the case with one bird and one nest full of eggs, that we shouldn't take too much, kal v'homer, all the more so, should we consider every time we use our natural resources. The Torah teaches in this simple example that we must conserve responsibly. We know all too well that exploiting our environment puts us in jeopardy. Taking without regard for what we will need in the future ensures that there will be nothing left.
It seems like a simple command for a specific situation, but the logic of kal v'homer provides the answer to so many of the ills we face in our society.
Don't be greedy. Don't take so much that there is nothing left. Don't take all the wealth and power, don't take from the earth with no regard for the future, and don't just take because you can. What there is must sustain us, all of us, as well as anyone who will ever be.