Monday, June 24, 2019

Compassion and the Mother Bird

An Enigmatic Mitzvah: This past week, in a dramatic but typical pairing of a) creating a crisis; then b) escaping the crisis by doing nothing; our current president avoided both a harsh, disproportionate military strike against Iran and a harsh ICE roundup of undocumented US residents.

One might think that such non-action shows to the nation and to the world just what a compassionate soul our current president truly is.

But we should all know better by now.

One might also think that such non-action shows just what a nincompoop (that's a euphemism) our president truly is. Can he not formulate a plan of action, then execute that plan?

We may thank God that he cannot.

But let us return to the theme of compassion. In particular - let's take a closer look at the mitzvah of Shiluach HaKen - sending away the mother bird.

The Torah tells us (Deuteronomy 22:6-7):
If a bird’s nest chances before you on the road, on any tree or on the ground, and [it contains] fledglings or eggs, if the mother is sitting upon the fledglings or upon the eggs, you shall not take the mother [from] upon the young. 
You shall send away the mother, and [then] you may take the young for yourself, in order that it should be good for you, and you should lengthen your days.
This, as they say, seems simple enough. Find a nest, shoo away the mother bird, earn long life. (Only one other mitzvah of all 613 gets you the same reward: honoring your parents.)

This mitzvah, many people will claim, shows God's goodness, compassion, empathy, and kindness.

For example: Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby has described this as "one of the loveliest passages in the Bible." In 1996, Mr Jacoby wrote:
There is a lesson here at once moving and pointed. The Author of the Bible, concerned though He is with matters cosmic and timeless, does not ignore the suffering of a mother bird who sees her young carried away - and neither may we. 
As human beings, we are given the right to use animals for our benefit. We may ride them and work them, herd them and milk them, make leather from their skins and coats from their fur. We may even eat them. But because animals are living creatures, we may not hurt them needlessly. Not even to the extent of seizing eggs or chicks while the mother is looking on. 
Several times the Bible repeats this principle. Oxen or donkeys may be set to hard labor but they may not be yoked together (Deuteronomy 22:10), for it would be cruel to force a larger and a smaller animal to pull the same load. An animal used to thresh corn must not be muzzled (Deuteronomy 25:4) - so that it can eat freely as it works. 
Even the Ten Commandments make the point: "The seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord your God; you shall not do any work - you, your son, your daughter ... your ox, your donkey, or any of your cattle." (Deuteronomy 5:14). Just as it degrades human beings to labor every day, it is degrading for animals, too.

The Talmud refers to this mitzvah as a חק hok (see Statutes and Ordinances), a Divine decree for which no reason is given.

And - unexpectedly - the Mishna (Berachot 5:3; Megillah 4:9) tells us that someone who (back when prayers were not fixed) says “Your mercy extends upon the nest of birds” in the daily prayers is to be silenced.”

Why? One reason Mishna Berachot gives: Because he [the pray-er] is placing jealousy amongst God’s creations, as if to say that God only has mercy on the birds but not on other creations.

The Rambam himself (in his commentary on the Mishnah) explains that the problem with such a prayer is that “he is saying that the reason for this commandment is G‑d’s mercy on birds."

"But this is not so, for were it a matter of mercy, He would not have allowed slaughtering animals at all. Rather, this is a received commandment without a reason.”

But lehavdil: The decision by our current president not to strike Iran or roundup undocumented residents has nothing at all to do with that man's goodness, compassion, empathy, or kindness.

For - as can plainly be seen - our current president
lacks goodness, compassion, empathy, and kindness.

CNN's Michael D'Antonio writes about the current president's "selective displays of empathy":
Whether it's the brutal execution of a single individual [Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi] or the death of thousands in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, Donald Trump does not seem moved unless the victims fit a certain profile. 
If a tragedy doesn't involve obvious Trump allies or supporters, then it doesn't seem to get his sincere attention.
Other tragic deaths that seem unworthy of his empathy include:
  • The six migrant children who have died in US custody in the past 10 months.
  • The nearly 3,000 American citizens who died in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
  • The four US soldiers who were killed in an Islamic State ambush in Niger in 2017. 
  • Senator John McCain, who died of brain cancer in 2018.
  • The fire that destroyed Paradise, California, and killed 85 people.  
Devoid of empathy, except when its display may help him politically, Trump seems 
inured to human suffering and unaware of the ways his selective response to death and destruction affects others.

The Washington Post's Max Boot writes that our current president "is an inveterate liar, but some of his lies are more significant than others."
Trump would like the world to believe that he called off the airstrikes because he is a humanitarian and “not a warmonger.” 
But the evidence suggests he was really motivated by conversations with the likes of Tucker Carlson, who told him, according to the Times, that the “hawks” urging retaliation against Iran “did not have the president’s best interests at heart … [and]" 
"if Mr. Trump got into a war with Iran, he could kiss his chances of re-election goodbye.”

And perhaps most importantly, The New York Times's Charles M Blow writes that "the cruelty of immigrant family separations must not be tolerated."
Trump’s ‘Concentration Camps’ 
The cruelty of immigrant family separations must not be tolerated.
I have often wondered why good people of good conscience don’t respond to things like slavery or the Holocaust or human rights abuse. 
Maybe they simply became numb to the horrific way we now rarely think about or discuss the men still being held at Guantánamo Bay without charge or trial, and who may as well die there. 
Maybe people grow weary of wrestling with their anger and helplessness, and shunt the thought to the back of their minds and try to simply go on with life, dealing with spouses and children, making dinner and making beds. 
Maybe there is simply this giant, silent, cold thing drifting through the culture like an iceberg that barely pierces the surface.
I believe that we will one day reflect on this period in American history where migrant children are being separated from their parents, some having been kept in cages, and think to ourselves: 
How did this happen? 
Protesters outside the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children, in Homestead, Fla., on Sunday. Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
Why were we not in the streets every day demanding an end to this atrocity? 
How did we just go on with our lives, disgusted but not distracted? 

But let us return to the mitzvah of Shiluach HaKen - sending away the mother bird.

For while the Rambam wrote in one place that this mitzvah cannot be related to God's compassion, he also wrote in another place:

The purpose of the laws of the Torah is to promote compassion, loving-kindness, and peace in the world.

How can this be? As American poet Walt Whitman would later write -

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