Guest Posting From Chabakuk Elisha - Selflessness
This past week we read about the mitzvah of Shiluach HaKen. The Torah forbids us from taking eggs from a mother bird, unless we send the mother away first - since taking her eggs away before her eyes causes the mother undue pain and we don't want her to be present to see it happen. The Torah guarantees long life to anyone who fulfills this mitzvah.
There are many interpretations for this commandment. Some say the reason why we perform it is because it parallels the mitzvah of honoring parents. Others say that it is because of Tzaar baalei-chaim (the prohibition of causing pain to another living thing). Chazal teaches us that performance of this mitzvah can bring children to the childless and hasten the redemption. There are elaborate discussions of this matter among all the commentaries, and it is indeed an unusual mitzvah for many reasons. However, there is one interpretation that always struck me as fundamental:
How is it that we can eat animals or eggs in the first place? G-d had initially forbidden man from eating animal products, and it wasn't until after the flood that G-d allowed man to eat animals. The reason that we are allowed to eat animals is that there is "upward mobility" in the food chain:
There are 4 basic life forms: Domem (inanimate matter - minerals), Tzomeach (plant life), Chai (animals), Midaber (speaking beings - humans). Each life form is elevated by becoming fuel for the higher form of life that consumes it. Plants absorb minerals, animals consume plants, and humans consume animals. Each time, the lower life becomes part of the higher life, and thus is elevated.
Now, what is it that makes humans unique? What makes humans the highest form of life?
A human has one thing that other life forms do not - self sacrifice. Animals are driven by their own self-interest, but a human has a potential for altruistic motives and self-sacrifice. There is, however, one exception to this rule; a mother protecting her young. Here we see an animal that will put its life at risk for another. Therefore, when we are dealing with an animal in this state, we are no longer "above" her and she is presently on our level. As such, we are forbidden to take her and her children. First we must send her away, and only then are we permitted to take her eggs.
The mitzvah of Shiluach HaKen teaches us that our humanity is defined by our selflessness. It is the mother bird that reminds us to ask ourselves the question, "Have I been a human lately?"