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AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Ki Teitzei

Parashat Ki Teitzei

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Ki Teitzei, which is Hebrew for “when you will go out.” The parashah begins with the premise of war and the laws that revolve around the treatment of a woman who is taken captive. But there are a lot of laws that are given in this portion – 74 of the 613 mitzvot, to be exact.[1] Many of the laws that are included revolve around “criminal, civil, and family laws,”[2] such as having concern for other peoples’ property, marital relations, and the payment of workers. Some of the laws may seem a bit random, but on a more meta level, it’s important to recognize that their general theme is about the responsibility that an individual has to their community. Dignity, justice, and communal order are precepts that underlie the laws of Parashat Ki Teitzei because these commandments are designed to protect – and ensure the safety – of all members of society. This includes the poor and underprivileged, and even animals. The aim is to create a fair and equitable society whereby “both property and human lives are respected, and – most importantly – in which individuals are subject to the community and its laws.”[3] In a world where we are encouraged to live local and think global, the structure of our individual communities – and our obligations to them – are essential to both their health and protection. And in a time of ecological crisis, this is an ideological standard that has become more urgent than ever.

The most obvious ecological mitzvah requires sending the mother bird away from her nest. It’s fairly straightforward, and there is much environmentally-based commentary on this commandment,[4] but I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss it here. In (22:6) we read: “If a bird’s nest happens to be before you on the road, on any tree or on the ground – young birds or eggs – and the mother is roosting on the young birds or the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young. You shall surely send away the mother and take the young for yourself, so that it will be good for you and you will prolong your days.” In short, the Torah is forbidding us to take a mother bird when she is sitting on her eggs or young. And, if someone wishes to take the eggs, they must send away the mother bird – even repeatedly, in the instance that the mother continues to return. In the Rambam’s commentary to this verse, he explains that it’s cruel to take a mother with its young. To explain this point, he links this mitzvah with the prohibition against slaughtering a mother animal and its young on the same day (Leviticus 22:28). But, “another reason is to symbolize that people should avoid doing things that will destroy a species, for to slaughter a mother and children on the same day is akin to mass extermination.”[5] For Ramban, he insists that this is a commandment to instill a sense of compassion in people – “not, as some think, because [Hashem] pities the birds and animals.”[6] This is a significant contribution because of the types of animals that are involved in this mitzvah. Throughout the Torah we get different categories of animals. There are, for example, the domesticated animals (behemah), which is the primary focus of (22:1) whereby we are commanded to “not hide yourself” from a situation involving a lost animal or intervening when an animal is overburdened. But this mitzvah, of shooing away a mother bird from its nest, is related to our treatment of wild animals – in Hebrew “chayim,” and is an extension of the law which prohibits unnecessary cruelty (tza’ar ba’alei chayim). Remarkably enough, the Torah is suggesting that to protect wild animals, and the biodiversity of species, we must cultivate compassion within ourselves.

Rashi, in his commentary on this verse, describes this mitzvah as “one of the easiest mitzvot of the Torah.”[7] If this is the case, at the rate we are destroying the natural habitats of wild animals, then this alone is proof that we are living in a world that epitomizes the antithesis of Torah. And if we are so inattentive to the suffering of other creatures, this – then – is representative of the fact that we have no compassion for ourselves. For part of Rashi’s explanation, he draws on the Mishnaic principle of “one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah” to explain why this commandment is so easy. Firstly, this is because it doesn’t involve a financial loss – a point that is refuted in the Mishnah (see Chullin 142a).[8] But also because when one is shooing away a mother bird, and collecting eggs, one is fully focused on the task at hand. In this way, it’s easy, always convenient, and doesn’t incur any financial loss. With respect to the principle of “one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah,” this is about the momentum gained from observing a commandment. Following the mitzvah of sending away the mother bird, which is supposedly easy, we then read the law involving the construction of a guardrail around the roof of a house. Both mitzvot are similar in that they involve the protection of life. This is a spiritual reward. But there is also the physical reward associated with the acquisition of new property – new birds and new houses.[9] And the mitzvotthat follow – not mixing seeds in one’s vineyard, not plowing a field with two different types of animals, and not wearing garments made of wool and linen – for Rashi, are connected because they are placed alongside each other (even though they are of a different nature). This is indicative of a progression of physical rewards that are given if one sends away the mother bird. In this way, if one observes this easy mitzvah, one “will come to possess a vineyard, a field, and fine clothes.”[10]

What is so shocking, and revealing, about this logic is that our compassion for wild species will perpetuate material rewards. The idea is that if we all care for the earth, for our common home properly, there will be enough for everyone. The implications are quite literal. Take, for example, some basic principles of foraging. Regarding the harvesting methods of wild, edible plants, we are encouraged to not take the first plants we see and to leave behind a practical percentage of plants in the area. In this way, the plants can propagate and come back in strong numbers the following year. This is called “considerate foraging,”[11] which cultivates practices that ensures the human, the species, and the ecosystem as a whole can benefit from the exchange. If we take more than we need, or if we stress a habitat/species more than it can handle (i.e. ecological stress), this can have an adverse impact which ultimately harms the human and the ecosystem within which the human must live. The whole idea that we are apart from nature, or can live outside of nature, is an illusion. And the Torah is not only asking us to reduce the suffering of wild creatures, but to have compassion for ourselves. In Carolyn Merchant’s book The Anthropocene and the Humanities, she talks about the “second death of nature.” This is, in essence, an impending conclusion whereby the human species have constructed the conditions for their own extinction. This mitzvah – this simple, easy mitzvah – of sending away the mother bird is proving to be one of the most difficult. But it is an essential commandment if we are to prevent our own extinction. The over-harvesting of natural resources, and compassion for other humans (and our own humanity), is related to our treatment of wild species.

In closing, I’d like to read some commentary from my Chumash related to the commandment to give away some of your own harvest (24:19). The quote reads as such: “The Torah stresses that…for harvest time – the culmination of a season’s hard work – is when a farmer feels pride of ownership. It is precisely then that the Torah tells him he must share his prosperity with the poor. More than ordinary charity, this commandment inculcates the realization that the gifts of the earth come from Hashem, Who gives them so all can share His beneficence.”[12] Principles of social justice are related to principles of ecological justice, which are all involved with the establishment of a balanced society. We have an obligation to uphold individual, communal, and environmental balance – these are all humane precepts that are integral to a just society. When you go out, be caring, be kind, and be compassionate. Blessings from the earth will follow, and these are gifts from Hashem.

Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now, and I’ll catch you next week.

Topics Include: Sending away a mother bird, considerate foraging practices, and avoiding the “second death” of nature


Eskenazi, Tamara Cohn, and Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, eds. The Torah: a women's commentary. CCAR Press, 2017.

Miller, Chaim. "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition." (2011).

Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

[1] [2] Eskenazi, The Torah: a women's commentary, p.1165 [3] Eskenazi, The Torah: a women's commentary, p.1165 [4] [5] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.1050-51 [6] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.1051 [7] Miller, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p.1270 [8] Miller, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p.1270 [9] Miller, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p.1270 [10] Miller, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p.1271 – based on Likutei Sichot vol. 9, p.133ff. [11] [12] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.1063

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