The organization of the second aliyah seems slightly odd. It begins by instructing that the body of an executed person be briefly publicly hung and then taken down before sunset. We are then taught the requirement to safeguard and return lost property, as well as assisting in unloading an animal that has collapsed under its burden. The aliyah continues by prohibiting cross-dressing. This is followed by the instruction that: “Should you on your way happen upon the nest of a bird before you, in a tree or on the land, with chicks or young…” In light of what preceded, particularly the commandment to return lost property, one would think that the continuation of the sentence would have to do with chicks or eggs having fallen from the nest and an obligation to return them. Instead, the pasuk continues on with the mitzvah of shiluach haken, requiring us to chase away the mother bird and take the eggs or chicks. The instruction is counterintuitive, bordering on ironic. What is the underlying unity to this aliyah?
The Torah states that leaving a body hanging past sunset is insulting to Hashem. Rashi explains this is because human beings are created in the image of Hashem. Indeed, all people have within them a Divine spark. There is a connection between all human beings flowing from our common connection to Hakodesh Baruch Hu. Jews in particular, as members of a single extended family, have an obligation to one another. Consequently, if one person loses something, then another person who finds that thing is obligated to safeguard and return it. Such acts of camaraderie and kindness should be displayed even when another’s animal is not lost but in distress. By doing so we show respect for our fellow human beings and respect for Hashem.
Showing respect for our fellow human beings is also one of the reasons for the prohibition on cross dressing. Rashi informs us that cross dressing might be used to engage in immoral activity. Such actions, reducing another human being to nothing more than an object of lust, denies their inherent Divine spark.
The mitzvah of shiluach haken is linked to the idea of returning lost property. From the mother bird’s perspective, removing the chicks or eggs from the nest is an unexpected and unmitigated disaster. It occurs without warning and in its aftermath there is no explanation. Similarly, in our lives, devastating events come without warning or expectation and leave us without explanation.
Concealed from us are the reasons for the pandemic, the tragedy in Meron, the collapse in Surfside, and the uncountable private losses we, our families, our friends and the whole Jewish community endure far too often. Explanations for seemingly tragic events are concealed from us just as lost property is in a sense concealed from its owner. Yet, just as Hashem commands us to return that concealed lost property, so also can we rest assured that one day Hashem will reveal to us the concealed reasons for the tragedies we have endured.
In the foregoing manner we see the second aliyah’s cohesion and logic. In the first aliyah we touch upon a tragic situation where a person might be executed by the court. This is followed by a discussion of what must be done to the body and the respect owing to it as a result of our being created in Hashem’s image. This mutual connection to Hashem imposes upon us certain obligations to assist and respect one another. One of these obligations is the return of lost property, which may also be viewed as property whose location has been concealed. The aliyah continues by prescribing a mitzvah whose reason is concealed and which creates for the mother bird a disaster whose reason is concealed. We know that what befell the mother bird was at the command of Hashem. Just as this understanding is given to us but concealed from the mother bird, so too one day Hashem will reveal to us all the concealed reasons for our seeming tragedies.
We can also now understand the juxtaposition of the mitzvah appearing at the beginning of the next aliyah. In the third aliyah it is commanded that we erect a parapet or fence around the roof of our homes lest someone fall and be injured or die. When we think back on the conditions surrounding the mitzvah of shiluach haken we must give pause. Consider the situation of the young birds. They grow safely within a hard shell, resting in a nest high in a tree, protected by the mother bird. Yet all the seeming safeguards are nothing, and of no avail to them, against the hand of man. We must contemplate, particularly now as Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, is but slightly more than two weeks away, our similar condition. No matter how well constructed our homes, no matter how strong our tangible or metaphorical fences are, we are all subject to the hand of Hashem.
Our lives are as fragile as an egg and rest in Hashem’s hands. May He bestow blessing, mercy, kindness, and forgiveness upon us. May the old year and its curses cease, and the new year and its blessings commence.
William S.J. Fraenkel received a bachelor of arts in religion and a law degree from NYU and served as a board member and officer of several Orthodox shuls. The opinions expressed in this dvar Torah are solely his own.