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The Species We Save Just Might Be Our Own

This Week's Torah Portion, Parshat Pinchas, has some very interesting stories. There is, yet again, another round of instructions for how to prepare sacrifices and offerings to God (for a non-corporeal being, God sure did require a lot of "food" in those early days), another census of the tribes, a dicey story about the Israelite men being seduced and led astray by the "harlotry" of the woman of Moab (apparently the Moabite women were very beautiful and the Israelite men were very weak… somethings never change). When an Israelite man and a Moabite woman took it upon themselves to……make a show of their love/lust or just contempt of the command not to engage in such relations Pinchas, one of Aaron's sons, took it upon himself to kill them both in front of the entire community. As I said, it was a dicey story. Anyway, in and amongst all of this adventure is the story of the daughters of Tzelofechad. The Torah tells us that when Tzelophechad died, having no male offspring, his daughters went to Moses to petition for an inheritance. They said:

לָמָּה יִגָּרַע שֵׁם-אָבִינוּ מִתּוֹךְ מִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ, כִּי אֵין לוֹ בֵּן; תְּנָה-לָּנוּ אֲחֻזָּה, בְּתוֹךְ אֲחֵי אָבִינוּ
Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he had no son? Give us a possession among the brethren of our father. (Numbers 27:4)

Moses was stumped by the question, so he asked God for guidance. To which God said:

כֵּן, בְּנוֹת צְלָפְחָד דֹּבְרֹת--נָתֹן תִּתֵּן לָהֶם אֲחֻזַּת נַחֲלָה, בְּתוֹךְ אֲחֵי אֲבִיהֶם; וְהַעֲבַרְתָּ אֶת-נַחֲלַת אֲבִיהֶן, לָהֶן
The daughters of Tzelophechad speak correctly: You shall surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father's brethren, and you shall cause the inheritance of their father to pass unto them. (Numbers 27:7)

From this, the Torah delineates the hierarchy of inheritance. First, the inheritance goes to the sons. If there are no sons, then it goes to the daughters. If there are no daughters, then it goes to the father's brothers. And if the father had no brothers, well, then it was up for grabs amongst the rest of the family, and they could fight amongst themselves. Again… some things never change.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Inheritance is: "The acquisition of a possession, condition, or trait from past generations." In our day, the question is not so much what will we receive from those who came before us but rather, what will we leave to those who come after us? On a personal/individual level, most parents always have in the back of their minds what they can do so that their children have a better life than they had. For many, it involves leaving something behind for our children after we're gone, whether it's money, property, or whatever. On a collective level, we speak about leaving behind a better world for future generations.

One of the big buzzwords today is "sustainability." We hear it all the time, but like so many catchphrases that are bantered around, what we think it means and what it actually means may be different. So, what exactly is sustainability? For many corporations, businesses, and organizations, instituting sustainable practices is a way to show they are concerned for the environment. For some of them, proclaiming their "sustainable" is just a clever advertising gimmick called "greenwashing" to make people think they're looking out for the environment when in fact, they're mostly just looking out for their bottom line.

In 1987, the United Nations Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." The catalyst behind the Brundtland Commission was to address the exploding global growth and development that had been taking place over the previous century and recognize the detrimental effects of development on the environment. For the first time, the International Community recognized that expansion and development mean progress and money, but progress and money at the expense of future generations is neither sustainable nor moral. Humanity was headed in a direction antithetical to the natural impulse of an evolved society, namely to leave the world a better place than we found it.

On the surface, this is a good thing. However, as humanity has continued to develop and global commerce has expanded even beyond what was imagined in 1987, sustainability is no longer what it was envisioned at that time. Sustainability only addresses the maintenance of natural resources so that those resources are available for future generations. It doesn't address the root causes of the problems that are facing the environment today. For example, if a farmer's field is not producing at the expected production level, fertilizers can be sprayed on the crop to bolster production. However, the root cause of the lack of production might be that the nutrients in the soil have been depleted. Spraying fertilizer will address the sustainability of the crop but will ignore the root cause of the problem. So too, with Climate Change. Rising temperatures, severe weather, extreme storm systems, sea level rise, and melting glaciers are the result of humans burning too much fossil fuel and pumping carbon into the atmosphere and the Ocean. We are told that this is not sustainable, and to reverse the process, and we need to stop burning fossil fuels and reduce our carbon impact. All of this is true from the perspective of sustainability, but it ignores the root cause of climate change. It ignores the fact that Earth's climate is created by water. The Ocean creates more than half of all the oxygen on Earth and is the greatest carbon sink on the planet. Yet, for all its vastness, the aquatic environment is a finely balanced ecosystem. If that ecosystem is out of balance, then the climate that it creates will be out of balance. Yes. The Ocean is getting warmer, causing more severe weather around the planet, but carbon emissions are only part of the problem. If humans continue to remove trillions of fish from the Ocean, if we continue to dump millions of tons of plastic, sewage, and toxic chemicals into the Sea, if we continue to deplete the phytoplankton and krill, the marine ecosystem will not be able to do what it is supposed to do. Sustainability is no longer enough. We must restore the aquatic environment so that the Earth can regenerate itself. This means that we humans need to see ourselves as part of nature and not separate from it.

There are Mitzvot that guide us to live a sustainable life. First and foremost among them is the Mitzvah of Bal Tashchit (בל תשחית) the Prohibition against needless waste and destruction. Yet, to find a command that goes beyond sustainability to regeneration is more difficult. It can be found, however, in perhaps the strangest and most confusing Mitzvah in the entire Torah: Shiluach HaKan (שלוח הקן) Deuteronomy 22:6-7

כִּי יִקָּרֵא קַן-צִפּוֹר לְפָנֶיךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּכָל-עֵץ אוֹ עַל-הָאָרֶץ, אֶפְרֹחִים אוֹ בֵיצִים, וְהָאֵם רֹבֶצֶת עַל-הָאֶפְרֹחִים, אוֹ עַל-הַבֵּיצִים--לֹא-תִקַּח הָאֵם, עַל-הַבָּנִים
שַׁלֵּחַ תְּשַׁלַּח אֶת-הָאֵם, וְאֶת-הַבָּנִים תִּקַּח-לָךְ, לְמַעַן יִיטַב לָךְ, וְהַאֲרַכְתָּ יָמִים
If a bird's nest should happen to be before you in the way, in a tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs, and the mother bird is sitting upon the young, or upon the eggs, you may not take the mother with the young. You must shoo away the mother, but the young you may take for yourself; that it may be well with you, and that you should have a long life.

This Mitzvah is unusual in several ways. Firstly, it is only one of two mitzvot in the entire Torah which says that if you observe it, you will have a long life (the other is Honor your father and mother), which immediately puts it into a unique category amongst the Mitzvot. Secondly, this mitzvah cannot actually be fulfilled as it appears. We assume that one would shoo the mother bird away to take the eggs or the fledglings to eat. However, if the mother bird is sitting on the eggs in the nest, the eggs have already been fertilized, rendering them not kosher to eat. If one were to shoo the mother bird away to take the fledglings to eat, they would be too small to slaughter properly according to the laws of Shechitah, which means they, too are not kosher to eat. So fundamentally, there is a flaw in the Mitzvah. Or is there?

To get beneath the surface to the deeper meaning of Shiluach HaKan we must look elsewhere. Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (1194-1270) said the purpose of Shiluach HaKan was to instill compassion into people and teach us to be merciful. Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda (1050-1120) said, "This mitzvah is to teach that people should avoid doing anything that will destroy a species, for to slaughter mother and children on the same day is akin to mass extermination." So, if the eggs or fledglings are not fit to be eaten, then the only reason to take them would be to ensure their survival; and ensuring the survival of a species is not sustainability. It's Restoration… and it is commanded of us in the Torah.

While we should all be concerned with Climate Change and creating a sustainable environment, we should even more so be concerned with the damage being done to the marine environment. We should do whatever we can to help restore a pristine marine environment and prevent the extinction of aquatic animals. We shouldn't do this just because scientists tell us to do it. We shouldn't do it just because environmentalists tell us to do it. We should do it because, as Jews, the Torah tells us to do it.

It's also worth noting, of the two Mitzvot that theoretically promise long life for observing them, honoring your father and mother promises long life "upon the land which the Lord your God has given to you." That means long life in the Land of Israel. On the other hand, Shiluach HaKan simply says observe this, and "You shall have a long life" without qualifying a location. So, if we work to restore the environment and prevent the extinction of any more species, if we work to restore the Ocean and the life within it to make it once again an efficiently functioning ecosystem, then one of the species we save just might be our own.


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