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Can Compassion to a Bird Help Bring Moshiach?

Version 2

by Dovid Sears and Richard H. Schwartz

 If you chance upon a bird's nest along the way in any tree or on the ground, whether it contains young birds or eggs, and the mother is sitting upon the young birds or upon the eggs -- you shall not take the mother bird together with her children. You shall surely send away the mother, and only then may you take the young for yourself; that it may go well for you, and you may prolong your days. (Deuteronomy 22:6-7)

Our sages discern within this Torah law several surprising and far-reaching implications. Concerning the phrase "shalei'ach tishlach" ("you shall surely send away"), the Midrash states:

Why does the verse use a double expression? Because one who fulfills the "sending forth" of this precept will be granted the privilege of "sending forth" a slave to freedom. As it is written, "and when you send him forth free . . ." (Deuteronomy 16:130). Fulfilling the precept of sending forth the mother bird also hastens the advent of the Moshiach, which is associated with the expression 'to send forth." As it is written, "[blessed are you . . .] who sends forth the feet of the ox and the donkey [to range freely]" (Isaiah 32:20). Rabbi Tanchuma said: fulfilling this precept hastens the arrival of Elijah the Prophet, whose coming is associated with the expression "to go forth." As it states, "Behold, I shall shall send forth to you Elijah the Prophet . . ." (Malachi: 3:23), and he shall come and console you. " He will return the heart of the fathers to their children, [and the heart of the children to their fathers]" (ibid.) (Devarim Rabbah 6:3).

At first glance, these connections may seem arbitrary. What does the simple act of sending away a mother bird before taking the nestlings have to do with the coming of Moshiach? The midrash uses the verb "tishlach" ("to send away") as the medium that interrelates the issues it mentions. But this semantic link only begs the question as to what these issues actually have in common.


A possible answer may be found by considering Jewish teachings on compassion to animals. While the Torah clearly places humanity above the animal kingdom, it mandates respect for all creatures, forbids causing animals unnecessary suffering, and idealizes the state of peace and harmony among all living things that will characterize the Messianic era. The term "nefesh chaya" (living soul) is applied to animals as well as humans (Genesis 1:21 and 1:24). The Torah states that G-d made treaties with animals (Genesis 9:9, 10; Hosea 2:20). After debating the stringency of the prohibition of cruelty to animals, the Talmud concludes that it is a Scriptural prohibition (Baba Metzia 32b, according to most Rishonim). The ramifications of this are discussed in greater detail in the authoratative Sefer Chassidim of Rabbi Yehuda HaChassid, as well as in halachic literature. The Kabbalists, too, stress the importance of compassion and respect for animals, since all things emanate from G-d's Wisdom and serve His Will (Tomer Devorah ch. 2-3). Perhaps the cornerstone of the Jewish attitude toward animals is the Psalmist's declaration: "his compassion is upon all of his works" (Psalm 145:9). Because the Creator shows compassion to all creatures, so should we.


The Jewish paradigm of a perfect world is the biblical Garden of Eden, in which harmony and peace existed between all creatures. The curse of death had not been visited upon the world, and both humans and animals were vegetarian, both by instinct and Divine mandate. (In fact, even after the banishment from Eden humans were not permitted to eat meat until after the great flood during the generation of Noah.) This Eden-like state of harmony and peace will be restored in the Messianic era. As the prophet states, "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb . . . the lion will eat straw like the ox . . ." (Isaiah 11:6-9).

According to Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel, all creatures will then return to their original vegetarian diet, for the "tikkun" (spiritual rectification) accomplished by meat-eating will have been fully accomplished (Olas Rayah 2: 292).

Of course, the central feature of the Messianic era is freedom from political subjugation. The entire Jewish people will return to the land of Israel, where at last they shall dwell in peace. All conflict between nations will cease (Mishneh Torah, Malachim, Ch. 11). Human nature itself will be transformed: "A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh" (Ezekiel 36:26). The prophets envisioned a future world in which compassion, not selfishness and strife, shall reign forever. "They shall neither hurt nor destroy upon all My holy mountain, for the knowledge of G-d shall fill the earth as the water covers the seas" (Isaiah 11:9).


Given this, we can see a profound connection between the mitzvah of sending forth the mother bird (shilu'ach hakan), the freeing of a slave, and the advent of the Moshiach. According to another Midrashic source, this precept is an act of compassion:

Rabbi Yudan Ben Razi taught: Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, has mercy upon beasts, so does he have mercy upon fowl (Devarim Rabbah 6:1).

Other commentators explain the mitzvah of "shilu'ach hakan" as aspiring to develop our sensitivities toward other humans (Nachmanides, ad loc.: Sefer HaChinnuch 294, 545). It might be objected that we cannot know the reason for any mitzvah, since the Torah is a product of the Divine will and wisdom. However, all authorities agree that the Torah wishes to ennoble us through its teachings. "The midrash (theory) is not the main thing, but the ma'aseh (deed) (Avos 1:17). The implication of the precept of sending away the mother bird at the level of action is clear: further acts of compassion for other human beings (such as freeing a slave) and ultimately world peace and enlightenment are brought about by an act of compassion for animals.

Why should this be so? Perhaps because acts that bespeak an enlightened spirit are inherently Messianic> One example is sending away the mother bird -- but this is implicitly true of all acts of compassion. A person can be compassionate only by putting aside self-concern and considering the total situation of which he or she is a part. This holistic awareness will be fully attained during the Messianic era. The spirit that moves us to behave in a sensitive and caring manner is an extension of the Messianic spirit. Thus, the Midrash enjoins us to bring the Moshiach by becoming attuned to this spirit and allowing it to inspire our actions. Then, to paraphrase the words of our Sages, "the Merciful One will surely have mercy on those who are merciful."


Dovid Sears is the author of "The Path of the Baal Shem Tov: Early Chasidic Teachings and Customs" (Jason Aronson, 1997) and "Compassion for Humanity in the Jewish Tradition" (Jason Aronson, 1998)

Richard Schwartz is the author of "Judaism and Vegetarianism" (Micah, 1988) and "Judaism and Global Survival" (Atara, 1987), as well as numerous articles on vegetarianism, animal rights, and ecology.

Back to the Schwartz Collection on Judaism, Vegetarianism, and Animal Rights