In this week’s parasha, Ki Tetze, the Torah outlines the mitzvah of shiluach haken – sending away the mother bird before taking its chicks or eggs from the nest. The Torah writes, “When you will happen upon a bird’s nest on the way in any tree or on the ground – with chicks or eggs – and the mother is sitting on the chicks or on the eggs, do not take the mother with the children. Surely send away the mother and the children you can take for yourself – in order that it will be good for you and (that) you will lengthen your days.” (Devarim 22:6-7)
While the Torah does outline the reward for keeping this mitzvah, it does not provide its reason. Ramban – Nachmanides – suggests two possible objectives of this mitzvah. His first explanation is that the mitzvah promotes sensitivity. Cruelty is a harmful character trait that should be discouraged even when animals are the target. Therefore, we are prohibited from taking eggs or chicks right in front of the mother. His second explanation is that the Torah prohibits us from engaging in behaviors that endanger a species. Eggs, chicks and birds are permitted to be eaten. However, we are enjoined to gather these in a way that preserves the species. Taking the eggs or chicks, while capturing the mother, is prohibited because the consistent practice of doing so would endanger the continuity of the species.
Each of these two explanations provides interesting insight into how the Torah helps us to refine our character traits. According to Ramban’s first explanation – that the mitzvah helps to promote sensitivity – the Torah helps us improve by commanding us to practice sensitive behavior. Apparently, the Torah operates from a premise about human psychology – actions have an impact on a person’s thinking. By commanding us to act sensitively, Hashem expects that we will gain the trait of sensitivity. This approach provides important insight into the self-improvement endeavor. To impact deeply-rooted character traits such as kindness, gratitude or justice, one should look to act kindly, graciously or justly even before feeling kind, gracious or just.
Ramban’s second explanation – that the mitzvah helps to protect the species – is also based on an important premise: harmful actions are harmful even if they are not intended to be harmful. From this perspective, the Torah teaches us that actions have consequences – even if they are unintended. This truth implores us to be as mindful as possible about the effects of our actions on the people around us and on ourselves.
The month of Elul is dedicated to repentance and preparation for repentance. These two ideas – that actions impact thinking and that harmful actions have consequences even when they are unintended – are important lessons for us to review as we prepare for Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur.