|Name a mitzvah that most people never do. Clue: It has to do with birds. When you find the nest of a kosher bird, you take the eggs but send the mother away first. Although the Torah almost never mentions the reward for any given mitzvah, here is one notable exception, and the reward is that it be good for you and your days be long. (Deut. 22:6-7). How can a 21st-century rationalist understand how sending away a mother bird can lead to a long life?
In a world filled with self-help books, to say that being a compassionate, generous person contributes to good health and longevity is not a novel idea. People who are compassionate to others have less stress, and this reduces the chance of a heart-related event, producing, on a statistical level, longevity. A recent study (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34282145/) found that there is a correlation between compassion and longevity. People who are compassionate towards others (CTO) and compassionate toward themselves (CTS) scored higher on tests of both their mental and physical well-being. But does the study actually prove that being nice is a pathway for long life? Not exactly. First, the study lumps together CTO and CTS, so we don’t know if one is more valuable than the other—but perhaps this first point underscores a second, more significant point. People who are compassionate to others and to themselves are more likely to look after their own well-being than those who are not. Compassion is not a cause of good health, but a symptom of a healthy person.
Let’s return to the mitzvah of sending away the mother bird. At first glance it seems that we are showing compassion to the mother; she is sent away so that she doesn’t see the eggs being taken away. When a Jew does this mitzvah, he or she is showing mercy on G-d’s creations and, it would seem, that is its goal. But there’s another way to understand it; the objective is not the mother bird, it’s to teach us to be compassionate. The ultimate goal is for our own self-growth rather than the kindness the mother receives—and this is why one who sends away the mother bird merits long life.
The Talmud mentions that there are three types of people whose lives are not lives, due to their constant suffering: the compassionate, the hot-tempered, and the delicate. (Pesachim 113b)
A life of compassion is not a life because people who are always preoccupied with the welfare of others never allow themselves a physical and emotional rest. One might say that Talmud is identifying what is now known as compassion fatigue.
For some, the most taxing aspect of caring for others is when the compassionate person sees someone suffering and realizes that nothing can be done about it. Someone might say, “Why would I want to perform the mitzvah of sending away the mother bird and develop the trait of compassion? It is just going to lead to a life of worry about other people as I watch them suffer and can’t do anything to relieve their pain and anguish. Having compassion might even shorten my life or not allow me to live a serene and peaceful existence.
This is precisely why the Torah gives a blessing of long life. If we develop this trait and become kind and concerned people, it won’t destroy us, rather G-d will help us find solutions for those we are trying to help and ultimately our lives will not be shortened as a result but lengthened. Finding a solution doesn’t necessarily mean a cure for their illness, it might mean giving you the wisdom to help the person deal with whatever life has thrown his or her way.
Developing compassion or empathy for others requires sacrifice. Aside from the commitment to sacrifice one’s time and energy to help others, there is an emotional toll that goes with it, especially when we are unable to help or when the recipient is unappreciative of our efforts. The Torah, through the mitzvah of sending away the mother bird, teaches that this should not be a deterrent, and quite the opposite, through our compassion for others, HaShem gives us a blessing that we should be able to provide for others for many years.
People throughout history have searched for the elixir to give them a long and healthy life but we need not to look further than the idea behind sending away the mother bird. The study quoted above implies that compassion is not a cause of good health but a symptom of a healthy person. The Torah stated this truth thousands of years ago when it enjoined us to send away the mother bird.
We’re a few weeks away from Rosh HaShanah, a time we ask the Almighty to be compassionate with us and give us another year of life. But not just life, a peaceful and meaningful life. We probably won’t pass too many bird nests by the start of the New Year but in these remaining weeks we can involve ourselves in acts of compassion. Although volunteering at the local food bank or hospital are wonderful activities, they are not a reality for busy people who barely have time for themselves and their families. But here’s something we can all do. Call a person who needs it. Check-in on the person whose life isn’t as fruitful and plentiful as yours. Do an act of kindness for no reason other than you are Jewish and have a mitzvah to do so. You might not be able to send a bird away, but each of us has the ability to pick up the phone or visit someone to whom we can give a ray of light and hope. May we all have the good sense to do so. Good Shabbos (Sources: Rashbam commentary to Pesachim 133b; Ramban and Ksav Sofer commentary to Deuteronomy 22:6-7)