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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Ki Teitzei: A Bird in the Hand

Devarim: 22: 6-8

It was a good time of life. Mike and Tova were living in the Walraven Apartments in Teaneck. Josh was already three years old and Tova was two months away from delivering number two (who would be named Ruth after Tova’s grandmother). Mike was still in his first post-college job, and Tova had a year to go to complete her PhD. in psychology. They were trying to save up money for a house in Bergenfield or New Milford—wherever they could afford a small three bedroom—but the money wasn’t coming in so fast. When they looked back on that period, it was definitely a time of hope.

Tova found Tzippy when she was taking Josh out in the stroller for his morning walk on a humid summer day. Had she fallen from her nest? Tova looked around but saw no birds nearby. There were a lot of trees on Walraven Drive, but Tova could not find Tzippy’s home. Josh took a liking to her right away. She was small and brown, with a white throat and a short dark bill, and clearly she was unable to fly. From Tova’s limited ornithological knowledge she thought it was a baby starling—but what did she know? She was from Brooklyn.

Tzippy hopped around in the grass, chirping loudly. Every time she made a sound, Josh giggled. Tova smiled, but she knew the bird was in trouble.

When Mike walked into the apartment at six, Tzippy was on the porch in a shoe box. Tova was trying to feed her sugar water with an eye-dropper, with Josh watching attentively from his high chair. To Mike it felt like every time Tzippy opened her mouth to feed, Josh took a bite of his dinner.

“Dad, we have a new pet.”

Mike smiled. He was from Syracuse, and although he was not a farm boy, he knew what needed to be done.

They switched from the sugar water to cat food. Josh helped Tova feed Tzippy with a pair of tweezers. The bird continued to chirp strongly, but Mike knew they couldn’t keep her.

The Flatrock Nature Center in Englewood was open until eight, so Mike, Tova and Josh took Tzippy to visit the rangers.

Ranger Rhonda confirmed that Tzippy was a starling. “You might not be able to find her nest because starlings usually build in cavities in trees or even on buildings.”

“Can we keep her?” Josh asked.

“Can we?” Tova reiterated.

“I’m afraid not,” Rhonda said. “ She could never survive on cat food and glucose water. She needs to fend for herself.”

“Can you keep her here?” Mike asked. “I know you raise a lot of strays in the nature center.”

“I’m afraid not,” Rhonda said. “They just don’t do well in captivity. The best thing you can do is put her back where you found her and hope her mother comes along.”

Tzippy was placed back in the car with her adopted family, and they headed back to Teaneck. It was very quiet in the Honda.

“She’ll do fine,” Mike reassured Tova and Josh. “This happens all the time. I’m sure her mother will come along in a few minutes and get her, just like Mommy picks you up from Maria’s house.”

Josh seemed reassured, but Tova sat in her seat, looking rather stricken.

“You know,” Mike said, “this week’s parsha, Ki Teitzei, deals with the mitzvah of shiluach hakan, of sending away the mother bird. The Torah states that if you come across a nest beside the road and the mother is sitting on her young or her eggs, that you should not take the mother with the young. You need to send the mother away before you take the babies or the eggs.

“The Rambam discusses the purpose of this commandment. In his Mishneh Torah he suggests that the mitzvah has no reason. It is a straight divine decree. But in the Moreh Nevuchim, the Guide to the Perplexed, the Rambam suggests that shiluach hakan is intended to spare the mother bird distress.

“I truly believe that in the end, what the Rambam is really saying is that we spare the mother distress in order to teach man not to be cruel. We spare the mother bird so that we learn to show mercy and kindness to all living creatures, whenever it is possible.*

“That’s what you did with Tzippy, Tova. You taught a little boy kindness to animals by caring for our temporary pet. And I think you should be proud of that accomplishment. But now it’s time for Tzippy to go back to her mom.”

After one last cat food snack they put Tzippy back on the lawn where they found her, and when they checked half an hour later she was gone. Was it her mother who rescued her? Did a local cat find a convenient snack? Tzippy’s fate remains unknown, but her effect on her adopted family lasted long after she moved on.

*Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Animal Welfare, Covenant and Conversation, September 2008.

By Larry Stiefel

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