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A mother wren feeds her three babies in their nest near Buckhorn Lake. CC by 2.0. Courtesy LouisvilleUSACE.

In our Torah portion for this Shabbat we come across a number of seemingly random commandments. One of them is known as Shiluach HaKen – sending away the mother bird. 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 be well and have a long life. (Deuteronomy 22.6-7)

A parallel to this commandment is found by many commentators in Leviticus: When an ox or a sheep or a goat is born, it shall stay seven days with its mother, and from the eighth day on, it shall be acceptable as an offering by fire to the Eternal. However, no animal from the herd or from the flock shall be slaughtered on the same day with its young. (Leviticus 22.27-28)

On the face of it, the rationale seems simple. We should send away the mother so the mother does not experience the pain of seeing her young taken away. The Women’s Torah Commentary (URJ Press) observes: “Such laws appear to stem from a perception that animals have an emotional attachment to their young, and from a humane concern to limit their distress.”

The medieval commentator Nachmanides (known as the “Ramban”) suggests that the purpose of these particular mitzvot, and others of course, is to cultivate within us the qualities of kindness and compassion. But note that it’s not so much out of concern for the animal that these mitzvot exist, but to educate us to be better human beings.

The Talmud (Berakhot 33b) suggests that it is not appropriate to look for a rationale for all the mitzvot, especially some that may seem particularly puzzling to us. The point of the mitzvot, according to the Talmud, is to teach us obedience to God. Period.

As Reform Jews, we are more inclined to understand and agree with the Ramban’s notion of cultivating kindness and humanity in ourselves. If we are concerned with the feelings of birds, after all, how much the more so ought we be concerned with our treatment of other human beings! Moreover, our approach in general is to try to understand the rationale behind various mitzvot, as we constantly evaluate their applicability (or not) to our lives. But the bottom line is that, whether we accept the Torah mitzvot as God’s law, regardless of whether or not we understand the rationale behind it, or we constantly evaluate it to increase our understanding of it and its relevance to us, we nevertheless embrace it as Jews throughout our lives as a source of our moral grounding as Jews.