Parshat Ki Teitzei: Sustainable Living and Animal Rights in the Torah

Uploaded by gdashdcast on 25.08.2009

If you're looking for mitzvahs,
you've come to the right place.
This week's reading of Ki Teitzei holds
the Guinness record for the most mitzvahs,
or commandments,
of any of the weekly parshas: over 70!
These mitzvahs cover
everything under the sun–
that hot desert sun, that is,
where the Israelites are waiting
to enter the Promised Land.
There are mitzvahs about everything
from family values, to how to fight wars,
to how to grow crops,
to which clothes you should wear.
Some are ethical,
about how we treat people;
and others are more ritual,
about how to serve God.
Then there's a mitzvah called
tza'ar ba'alei chayim–
about preventing the suffering of animals –
which doesn't seem to fall neatly into either
of those traditional categories.
We're not talking about cats and dogs here–
there aren't too many pets in the Bible.
The animals they had worked for a living.
And so, there's a rule that Sabbath rest goes
for your animals as much as for you.
Regulations about how to treat animals
are like labor laws,
protecting the conditions of the workers,
who here happen to have four legs.
Is that donkey struggling
under a heavy load?
Go help it! You're even obligated to do this
for your enemy's animals.
Earlier in the Torah,
we were commanded not to cut down
fruit trees in wartime.
Here too, we are told to keep our arguments
between people,
and not drag in nature and other creatures.
Here's another mitzvah from Ki Teitzei:
When you plow a field,
don't do it with a big ox and a small donkey,
because the weaker one will suffer.
And when it comes time
to thresh the harvest–
don't muzzle that ox to prevent it from eating
while you're making it stare
at all that juicy grain.
Some of these laws
may seem old-fashioned:
When was the last time
you plowed a field at all?
(Not to mention using an ox or a donkey!)
And who knows what threshing is
anymore, anyway?
(Actually, it's the process where we separate
the edible parts of grain from the gross,
inedible parts.)
But the question of how we treat
animals today is even more crucial.
The Torah allows us to use animals
for our own benefit–
but draws the line at abuse.
So where do we draw that line today,
in our lives, in our homes, in the fields,
and in science?
This brings us to the last mitzvah of the day:
the curious example of what to do
when you find a nest with birds and chicks
or eggs, and you need them for food:
If you happen to find a bird's nest,
and the mother bird is sitting over the chicks,
or on top of the eggs, the Torah tells you
to shoo away the mother bird–let her go,
and only take the chicks or the eggs.
And, if you do, the Torah continues,
you'll fare well and have a long life.
But why should we
send the mother bird away, and
why is this supposed to bring us long life?
Maybe this is just another example of
preventing cruelty to animals.
But, if that's true, wouldn't the Torah
have just forbidden taking
the chicks or the eggs?
How will the mother bird feel
when she comes back
and finds her babies gone?
Maybe, then it's really about us:
encouraging people
to be more compassionate.
Or maybe there's a third way
to understand it.
The mother bird makes the chicks and eggs
(with some help from Dad)
and so if you need to, take some,
but let her go on living, and making more.
This is actually one of the greenest mitzvahs
in the Torah,
because to kill both the mother and the child
would be like picking ripe fruit
and then chopping down the fruit tree!
And we do this more often than we think
when we overfish the oceans, say,
or when we take too much of anything,
or use it up more quickly
than the Earth can replace.
This is why this mitzvah is the key
to living good and long lives:
it's about helping the natural world renew
and replenish itself
without us getting in the way.
Abraham Lincoln once said,
"I care not for a man's religion
whose dog and cat are not the better for it."
According to the Torah,
that means all animals,
and the whole natural world.
That's why we call it a tree of life:
life for us and for all of creation.
Producer: Sarah Lefton
Animation Director: Nick Fox-Gieg
Animation: Colleen MacIsaac
Editorial Director: Matthue Roth
G-dcast Theme Music: Tim Cosgrove
Written and narrated by Jeremy Benstein
Recording by Studio Lev