| Parshah |

An Instant of Instinct

Honoring our own parents, created b’tzelem Elokim!


“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.” (Devarim, 22:7)

The Gemara (Chullin 144a) discusses the connection between the mitzvah of shiluach hakein to that of honoring one’s parents. Both carry the reward of “long days.”

It’s interesting to note, however, that shiluach hakein is focused only on female birds. Why? (Rav Chanoch Eherentrau, Kamatz Haminchah)

The year was 2001. It felt like 1939.

To fully understand, one had to live here, live through it. Suicide bombings were common, people were murdered on the street in broad daylight. But short of running back “home” to the States (which soon proved to be as volatile a setting on September 11), we gritted our teeth and life went on.

Yet it took its toll. Every day I left the house, kissing the mezuzah, praying I’d arrive back home safely. Often I’d be walking down a busy street in Yerushalayim and hear the wails of sirens, the screech of speeding of army jeeps, sending pedestrians fleeing the panic of another terrorist attack.

Chazal differentiate between birds that are domesticated and birds that are wild; because the pasuk describes the mitzvah as something that must be done, “when you chance upon a nest,” they place the obligation only on wild birds, as domesticated birds don’t have the instinct to flee to protect themselves. 

From here, says the Rambam, we learn that it’s forbidden to utilize the extra force and power mankind has over animals at a time when an animal can’t save himself and flee. The natural instinct of a female bird is to protect her children. Therefore, even though she’s a wild bird, she can’t flee; she’ll instinctively remain to protect her children. Causing her pain by making her witness the loss of her eggs would be terribly cruel, be taking advantage of the mesirus nefesh unique to motherhood.  

Summer vacation was upon us, and I was determined my kids would enjoy a lighthearted break; I wanted to protect the innocence of their youth.

My daughter and I were sitting on a side street in Geula enjoying an ice cream. The light was waning, and I knew I should head back home. But we were both so content after a shared afternoon that I relaxed, my arm across her shoulders, my face bent to hers as she giggled over the sprinkles that were coating her chin.

We’re forbidden to cause pain to an animal that has no understanding, who’s just living by natural instincts. How much more so do we need to understand the lesson contained here for honoring our own parents, created b’tzelem Elokim!

I saw him out of the corner of my eye. My peripheral vision registered what my brain barely had time to absorb. Across the street, an Arab came running out of building, head bent low, holding a bulky bag, as he rushed toward us.

Instinct kicked in and I threw myself across my daughter, my body covering hers as I braced for attack. The panic lasted only a few seconds. But those few seconds were eternity. I heard the rush of footsteps, the pounding of his shoes, and then he was running… racing… toward a bus stop a few feet past us.

I sat up, realizing I had overreacted, but still shaking from the fear. I pulled my daughter onto my lap. The ice cream was all over her face now, but her giggles were gone.

“Was he going to hurt us?” Her eyes were huge, the innocence in them shattered by 2,000 years of persecuted children. “An Arab killed Nechami’s cousin on a bus. Nechami’s mommy still cries.”

“He wasn’t going to hurt us. He was just running to catch the bus. I’m sorry I scared you.”

Sorry I had put that hunted look in her eyes, that I hadn’t managed to protect her after all. But there hadn’t been time to think or assess. And the scenario had been all too similar to dozens of tragedies that had happened this year on similar streets in similar surroundings.

“I was scared.” She swiped at her chin. “But I knew you were taking care of me. I knew I was safe ’cuz you were with me.”

And the light came back into her eyes as they shone at me with love.

Perhaps I hadn’t hurt her after all. Perhaps this was a positive experience, one she’ll remember — no matter what, no matter where, a mother always instinctively wants to shield her child from pain.

I remembered a quote I once saw from National Humanities Medalist Barbara Kingsolver: “The strength of motherhood is often greater than natural laws.”

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 659)

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