Cultivating compassion

Cultivating compassion

Rabbi Bryna Milkow
Rabbi Bryna Milkow

Ki Tetzei, Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19

Among the 72 mitzvot that are delineated in the parasha of Ki Tetzei, there is one that some consider to be an “easy” mitzvah. In Deuteronomy 22:6-7 we learn, “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 eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young.” The reward for this “easy” command is mighty, “You may fare well and have a long life.”

Interestingly, the reward for this mitzvah is the same as one of the most difficult of mitzvot, that of honoring our parents.

And like the mitzvah of honoring our parents, the mitzvah of sparing the mother bird, is a universal commandment; one that everyone, young and old, those of all faiths can practice. It is a mitzvah that reaps innumerable, tangible and intangible benefits. In fact, this mitzvah is not “easy” at all for it is at the heart of how we treat others as well as ourselves. For the Torah is teaching us not just about how to treat a bird, rather the Torah is teaching us to practice compassion; one of the most important traits that we can cultivate in ourselves. According to Nachmanides, learning compassion is the underlying purpose of this mitzvah.

For Maimonides, the scope of the mitzvah is even wider. He writes “For the suffering of animals … is very great … and does not differ from that of a human, since the love and tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reason, but by imagination, and this faculty exists not only in man but in most living beings. … If the law provides that such grief should not be caused to cattle and birds, how much more careful must we be that we should not cause grief to our fellow humans.”

To be truly and consistently compassionate is not as straightforward or as easy as chasing a mother bird away from her nest. Often we readily focus our attention on situations in which there is a profound lack of compassion. The uproar last month about the killing of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe is but one example. One can scarcely scan Internet news or read a newspaper without stumbling upon times when greater compassion might have alleviated suffering.

Certainly, we readily notice other peoples’ lack of compassion. But what about in ourselves? As we review our lives preparing our souls for the upcoming Holy Days, how abundant is compassion in our lives, especially during challenging times. When we are stressed, anxious, rushed or feeling sad, it is harder to remember how to be compassionate. How often do we get aggravated in slow traffic? How often do we lose patience with our children and partners? How often do we get angry with ourselves for our mistakes?

Perhaps because compassion can sometimes be challenging for us, we are reminded of it in our daily prayers. When we recite the birchot hashachar, the blessings teach us to free the captive, clothe the needy and open the eyes of the blind. These religious obligations are metaphoric (and actual) acts of compassion.

In just a few weeks, we will gather together around the family table, and in our sanctuaries, to usher in the new year of 5776. My prayer for all of us is that this year we will be scrupulously pious in our practice of compassion toward all of God’s creations: the Earth, the animals, the people. May 5776 be a year of blessings and kindness.

Rabbi Bryna Milkow is the rabbi of Temple Ohav Shalom. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.