Just as I was finishing my walk this morning, a huge and powerful Great Blue Heron suddenly appeared out of nowhere and glided right by me at eye level! My camera settings weren’t really right for the moment, yet I couldn’t help but snap a photo when I literally felt the whoosh… of his massive wings as he passed!! Now it is early September, but it wasn’t so long ago that we were privileged to watch these incredible creatures building their nests and courting and – after a few short weeks sitting on their eggs – nurturing their demanding and often comical offspring until they were ready to fledge.
While searching for a Judaic source about something on the Chabad website today, I quite unexpectedly discovered this marvelous little piece by Jewish poet Simcha Wasserman, about the Great Blue Heron (http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/163226/jewish/The-Great-Blue-Heron.htm). Wasserman has captured so succinctly, yet so eloquently, the sentiments one feels as this mighty bird soars right overhead:
flight of the Great Blue Heron;
drawing down the heavens
raising the earth
Beautiful connections between birds and Judaism keep appearing to me in so many unimagined ways! Another occurred this past Shabbat, when our Torah reading was Ki Teitzei, the portion that includes more mitzvot (commandments) than any other portion in the entire Bible. One of the most unique and puzzling mitzvot in Ki Teitzei is referred to as Shiluach HaKen, or Sending the Mother Bird Away from the Nest. This is what it tells us:
6. 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 upon the young. 7. 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.
ו. כִּי יִקָּרֵא קַן צִפּוֹר | לְפָנֶיךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּכָל עֵץ | אוֹ עַל הָאָרֶץ אֶפְרֹחִים אוֹ בֵיצִים וְהָאֵם רֹבֶצֶת עַל הָאֶפְרֹחִים אוֹ עַל הַבֵּיצִים לֹא תִקַּח הָאֵם עַל הַבָּנִים:
ז. שַׁלֵּחַ תְּשַׁלַּח אֶת הָאֵם וְאֶת הַבָּנִים תִּקַּח לָךְ לְמַעַן יִיטַב לָךְ וְהַאֲרַכְתָּ יָמִים: (Chabad.org)
It’s fascinating to note that this is one of only two (of the total 613) mitzvot, or commandments, in the Torah that grants us long life. The other one is honoring one’s parents – think about the possible connections between these two mitzvot! Yet the mitzvah of Shiluach HaKen is obscure and fraught with many controversies.
Much has been written about the meaning of Shiluach HaKen, including a wonderful 2008 commentary by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in which he analyzes the seemingly conflicting views within the various writings of the great medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides on the subject. Is the mitzvah, to shoo away the mother bird and take its eggs, cruel? – or does it actually teach us compassion? Rabbi Natan Slifkin wrote a lengthy, well-researched article on the “radically different conceptions” (Slifkin, 2010, p. 5) of this mitzvah, from the early Midrashic sources to later mystics, to some of the controversial contemporary views.