By: Rabbi Rene Pfertzel,
The Liberal Jewish Synagogue
, London, UK
While we were reading the commandment to honour one’s parents in the Decalogue, a Bar-Mitzvah boy told me: “I have a problem with this text. I am not sure if I love my parents”. A teenager’s love for parents is somehow complicated, as at that age one is starting to grow outside the family nest and to question their parents’ overwhelming power. It is a time in their life where one finds his/her own ways to navigate the world. Everything is being redefined. I knew his parents quite well and found them to be kind, thoughtful, caring parents, so his statement struck me as quite unfair.
I replied: what does the text actually say?
Kabed et avikha v’et imekha
, “You shall respect your father and your mother”. He sighed, relieved: “I get it”.
The text in Deuteronomy 5:16 carries on: “so that your days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with you in the land that the Eternal, your God, gives you”.
Our Torah portion contains another commandment,
, the “sending away of a nest”, that produces the same outcome if the mitzvah is accomplished.
“If along the road you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with the young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life” (Deuteronomy 22:6-7).
According to the JTS Deuteronomy Commentary (p. 201), “this allusion calls attention to the fact that the present command is likewise an aspect of respecting a parent”.
I am not sure if this interpretation entirely explains a text that seems otherwise quite cruel towards the fledglings and the mother. However, there is a long line of interpretation in the Jewish tradition that reads these verses as a call against cruelty towards animals. According to Maimonides (The Guide of the Perplexed 3:48), this commandment, alongside the prohibition of killing “a cow or an ewe with her young both in the same day” (Leviticus 22:28) teaches us compassion, even in the animal realm, for every living creature. In addition, killing the mother and the child within the same day is comparable to mass destruction. If both generations are wiped out on the same day there is no hope for a next line to come up. Our Sages already had a sense of the planet’s limited resources, and they raised the awareness that we should use them with sensitivity.
According to the NGO “Global Footprint Network”, “Today humanity uses the equivalent of 1.6 planets to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste. It means it now takes the Earth one year and six months to regenerate what we use in a year” (cf. website).
We live now in a world that our Sages imagined intuitively, a world that wastes its resources – and there is a speeding up of the process. As a species we seem to turn a blind eye to this issue, and we might only wake up when it is too late. And yet Abravanel, the 15th century Portuguese-born philosopher said in his commentary that the promise of a long life signals an additional aim of the law: conservation of natural resources.
We may sometimes find it difficult to love our planet, and see it as an abstract concept, as my Bar-Mitzvah boy once struggled with loving his parents, but we should at least respect it. Our fates are so deeply intertwined that if we do not change our behaviour, we will ultimately hurt ourselves. Respecting our environment is akin to respecting our humanity. Until we sort out the holistic link between our planet and mankind, we will fail in our mission on this earth to better the world, and to be God’s partners in His creation.
May it be Your will that the words of Torah penetrate deeply into us, so that we become conscious of our responsibilities.
Ken Yehi Ratzon