This week’s portion, Ki Tetze, is a long list of mitzvot —more than 70 — of every category and type. It comes a little over a week into the month of Elul, the month of preparations for the High Holidays.
With the advent of Elul this year, I’ve been cleaning out my house. I have given away outgrown clothing to friends and strangers — going through my closets in an attempt to pare down. Don’t tell my kids, but the playroom is next.
One motivation is a wool moth infestation that has been threatening all our woolens. This calls for major closet cleaning. I come from a family of knitters, so we have a lot of wool items. I am finding that it’s not so easy to think about giving them away. Some are beautiful sweaters that my mother made me, but that I don’t wear anymore. Some are baby sweaters or hats that I knit for my kids. Some aren’t hand-knits at all, but the sentimental value of the giver or the place of origin is strong.
I am starting to see that this is not just about the wool stuff. It is about all stuff. It’s not much easier to part with some of the cuter kid’s clothes that have been outgrown, and I know I will feel similarly about the toys. Paring down is hard.
One of the more mysterious mitzvot we are given in Ki Tetze is the mitzvah to let a mother bird go from her nest before taking the eggs or baby bird for your own use. “If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.” (Deuteronomy 22:6-7)
There are many interpretations of why we are given these instructions, but Jeremy Benstein, an environmental activist, offers a compelling read of it in his Godcast video on the weekly portion. His reading speaks to my desire and difficulty to reduce the amount of stuff I have, and why it is so important that I do it.
He explains that it is not out of concern for the life of the animals that we must spare the mother — if so, then why would we be allowed to take the babies and the eggs? It is because if we were to kill the mother, too, she would never again reproduce. By letting her go free, we make it possible for her to keep producing more of the eggs we might need for food, and in that way the source of the produce remains sustainable.
He draws this same principle into all our interactions with the earth’s resources: If we cut down the trees that give us resources, we will have no more to get them from. If we overfish the oceans, we lose the source of all our fish. The earth’s bounty can only regenerate when the equivalent of the mother bird is left untouched.
This is my lesson for this Elul. I can do with consuming less — much less — but for my attachments. And while I am working on clearing out some of that excess, I can be giving it away to others so that they don’t have to purchase something else that uses more of the earth’s resources.
May this be an Elul of clearing out the clutter, material and spiritual, to make room for renewal — of ourselves and of the earth. After this Shabbat, get to work on that closet!
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org .