Over this summer, my wife and I joined the New York City Zoo as a result of our daughter Gabby’s love of animals. So far we've been to the zoo in the Bronx, the zoo in Queens, the zoo in Central Park and even the New York Aquarium and each time, Gabby has loved watching the animals at play. She’s developed favorite animals, she makes the noises of some of the animals, and she generally has a wonderful time as a child looking at these wonderful creatures.
But for us, as her parents, while we appreciate the animals and certainly do enjoy them, we’re also struck by the fact that across these zoos, at various points, are all sorts of posters and signs reminding us about the threat that some of these species are facing in the wild. Talking about our responsibility to the environment and about the dangers of the way that human behavior is really challenging the sustainability of animal life on this planet.
It's worth noting that the Torah has an opinion about this. In this week’s Torah portion, we read the fascinating line “if a birds nest chances to be before you in the way in any tree or on the ground whether there are young ones or eggs and the mother sitting upon the young or upon the eggs you shall not take the mother with the young, but you shall let the mother go, and take the young to you”.
While we might be a little struck, at least in our modern world, and with our modern sensibilities about the idea of taking the young from a nest, this was the way that society functioned. But, what’s striking here is that while you could have made off with the mother and the young, or the mother and the eggs, the Torah comes in and clearly prohibits this from happening.
And, a reward is even suggested immediately afterwards, and it says that it may be well with you and that it may prolong your days. This is clearly an important enough commandment that the Torah specifies the reward for fulfilling this command. In prohibiting the removal of the mother together with its young the Torah is making a statement about how we use and abuse the environment and what is appropriate and inappropriate.
But with the reward, it's striking to see that it says it may be well with us, but it is also about prolonging our days. Now we may read this in the sense of prolonging our personal life, that we will receive a long life by fulfilling this commandment, or perhaps we should read this in terms of our planet and our species as a whole.
If we don’t take care of the environment, if we don’t invest in sustainable environmental projects, then our days on this planet are numbered. And, so in many ways, as we fulfill this obligation in this week’s Torah portion, we don’t just prolong our personal days, we prolong our days as custodians of planet Earth. As those who back in the Garden of Eden were told to till it and tend it.