Lessons from birds


In this episode, Rabbi Josh Feigelson delves into the profound connection between personal inner work and our actions toward others by examining the concept of interconnectedness with all beings.

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Just before the Covid pandemic, something very fortuitous happened: My wife and I built a deck on our house. We had long dreamed of one. The previous owners had created a sliding door out of our kitchen that was clearly supposed to open onto a deck, but they didn’t manage to build it, so there was a five-foot drop to… nothing. After years of saving, we finally hired a contractor in the late winter of 2020, and construction was finished on March 12, 2020.

Thank God for that deck. It got a lot of use in the ensuing months. One of the things I most vividly remember was waking up early in the summer and taking my coffee out to the deck and doing my morning meditation practice there. I would listen to the birds chirping, a few cars going by. I would close my eyes and allow myself to tap into my sense of interconnection.

At a time when we weren’t really going anywhere, sitting on the deck in the morning like that helped me remember that, even though we were confined to home by a raging virus, there were still people and animals and plants — a whole world. I know it sounds strange, but in some way I almost felt more connected because of it.

That was one of the lessons of the pandemic for me, and it highlights one of the curious things about mindfulness and spiritual practices in general: A lot of time this stuff can feel like navel-gazing, a kind of indulgent self-care. But I discovered that, at least for me, tending to that personal, inner work is inextricably linked to my connection with the rest of creation. I can’t have one without the other. I needed to feel that sense of interconnection on the deck in order to connect with myself; and I needed to connect with myself in order to sense my interconnection with others. 

You’ll recall that over the last few weeks we’ve been on a journey on the Jewish calendar, from the super-low, broken point of the Ninth of Av to the renewal of Rosh Hashanah that’s a few weeks away. Over the last three weeks, we’ve reflected on how we hear, how we see, and how we judge–all aspects of our relationship with the world. A lot of that has been focused inside–in our minds, in our hearts, in our senses.

This week’s Torah portion invites us to turn things around a bit. It’s called Ki Teitzei, which literally means “when you go out.” It’s actually the portion of the Torah that contains more mitzvot — commandments or, as I like to think about it, moments to connect with the Divine — than any other, 74 by most counts. And most of those mitzvot are not about focusing on our inner state, but on our external actions: returning lost objects, how to treat animals, how to plant crops, and many more. 

One mitzvah in particular stands out, at least for me: It’s the instruction that if you’re going to collect eggs from a nest, before grabbing the eggs, you first have to send away the mother bird. For millennia, rabbis and commentators have struggled to figure out why this mitzvah is here.

Is the Torah saying that animals have feelings and we should be sensitive to them? Definitely could be, but it also raises a tricky question: if that’s the case, then why does the Torah allow taking the eggs in the first place, let alone killing animals for meat? It’s also not as though anyone is going to benefit from this behavior: the mother bird is still losing her chicks, and it seems no people are going to be better off just because she didn’t get to watch it happen. So why is it here?

There’s one particular answer that really resonates with me. It’s from the thirteenth-century commentator, Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, also called Ramban or Nachmanides. He explains that sending away the mother bird is reminding us that our behavior towards other beings — not just humans, but animals and plants and the rest of creation — is part of our spiritual practice.

It isn’t enough to just focus inwardly on our emotional or mental realities; we have to pay attention to what our actions do in the world. We have to be mindful of how we affect the other creatures with whom we share the planet – all of the other creatures. The Torah isn’t asking us to become vegans–though that can be a very powerful spiritual practice — but it is saying we should be cognizant of our relationship with that mother bird. We should take account of her feelings.

Last week we entered the month of Elul. It’s the month that leads up to Rosh Hashanah, that takes us down the home stretch of our seven-week journey. Traditionally it’s a time of spiritual introspection and taking stock. In addition to focusing on how we see, hear, and judge, this week I’d like to encourage us to focus on how we can act with a little more awareness of and care for others. 

The name of this month, Elul, is understood in Jewish tradition to be an acronym for the Hebrew words Ani l’dodi v’dodi li, a beautiful line of Biblical poetry that means, “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.” So this is what I want you to try this week, and I’ll also be doing it myself. Let’s be a little more attuned to someone else–a beloved person in our lives, a beloved friend or relative, a beloved neighbor, a beloved pet.

You might even write the words, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” on a piece of paper and put it around your home — on your bathroom mirror, the door of your fridge, where you keep your keys. See if, at least once a day this week, you can make a point to slow down and act with a little more awareness of someone else’s life — send a text, write a card, make a phone call. Or perhaps even do something they won’t know about but that will make their life easier. 

Notice how you feel when you do it. See if it helps you bring together some of the teachings of the last few weeks. And let us know how it goes — we can compare notes.

Blessings for the journey. I hope you’ll join us next time.

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