“If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest …” the Torah instructs in this week’s parsha, Ki Teitzei, you should endeavor to act with compassion. “Do not take the mother together with her young,” we read. Instead, one should shoo away the mother as a means of humane treatment of animals.
“If you build a new house,” we read in the very next verse, “you shall make a parapet for your roof.” Anticipating that someone may climb onto your roof, it is your responsibility as a homeowner to take precautions to ensure the safety of your neighbor.
Of the 74 commandments in this week’s parsha, these two stand out as gems of morality that transcend the ages, but they also share an important common word: “if.” Both of these commandments are predicated on chance: If you happen to encounter this situation, you must behave in an ethical manner.
From time to time, we will stumble upon chances to live our highest values. They may come as a surprise, like encountering a bird’s nest on our path. They may come as an unintended consequence of unrelated actions, like having the opportunity to ensure the safety of others when building a home for ourself.
The Talmud links these two commandments with parallels from the book of Exodus: If you see your enemy’s donkey lying under its burden, you must help to raise it, and if you meet your enemy’s animal wandering, you must return it. When we stumble upon opportunities to be our best selves, even when doing so might benefit our enemies, we should indeed live our highest values.
But the same passage that raises up this idea goes on to explain how it falls short:
“Hezekiah said: ‘Great is peace, for in connection with all other precepts in the Torah it is written, “If thou see” (Ex. 23:5),
“If thou meet” (Ex. 23:4), “If there chance” (Deut. 22:6), “If thou buildest” (Deut. 22:8) [implying] if a precept comes to your hand, you are bound to perform it; but what is written in connection with peace? Seek peace, and pursue it (Ps. 34:15) [meaning] seek it in your place and follow it to another place.’” (Derekh Eretz Zuta 2c)
Yes, we should strive to be our best selves when the opportunity is presented to us, but even more so should we seek out opportunities to become our best selves. As we approach our High Holy Days, may we not only notice the opportunities to live our values that are present in our lives but actively pursue the chance to make the world more peaceful. PJC
Rabbi Emily Meyer is an educator and the founder of Doodly Jew on Facebook. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.