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Many years ago, on our way to shul, my daughters and I encountered a baby bird on the sidewalk. It was apparent from its downy fur, tiny size and outraged squawks that it was newly hatched. Clearly, it must have fallen out of its nest, and too young to fly, it sat stranded on the ground below our neighbor’s tree, screaming for help.

“Where’s its mother?” my older daughter asked, crouching down to examine the fledgling. Instinctively I told her not to touch it. Although I was a city girl, I was sure that if she touched the bird her human scent would make the baby abhorrent to the mother. Turns out I was wrong about that, but either way, there was nothing we could do to assist the little bird. Reluctantly my daughter stood up, and as we continued walking down the block the baby’s cries were punctuated by a louder, more authoritative voice. Mama bird had arrived. She flew in circles around her baby but did not scoop it up.


My daughter fretted. “Why won’t the mom pick it up?” I had no clue, but thinking that perhaps our presence at the scene was hindering a possible rescue, I urged the girls onward, reassuring them that nature had a way of sorting itself out. Sure enough, when we came home from shul the only evidence that anything had been amiss was a tiny branch that lay in the space where the baby bird had been.

Later that night my daughter came to me. “Mommy, what do you think happened to that baby bird?” I didn’t share with her my dark imaginings (devoured by the local cat?) and instead soothed her with stories of mommies and babies who always found each other in the end.

A few years later, both of my daughters, independently of each another, had the opportunity to perform the mitzvah of shiluach hakan, sending away the mother bird before taking her young. One opportunity was staged in the school’s backyard and the other one was happenstance. I found it interesting, but also unusual, that both of my girls should have the good fortune to perform such a circumstantial mitzvah. Certainly it meant something, but at the time its significance was elusive. Like the story of the fallen baby bird, it was a random puzzle piece that had yet to connect to anything else.

Right before the covid lockdown, my oldest daughter got married. My younger daughter had moved out the summer before to attend medical school, so my husband and I became young empty nesters. I wanted to take advantage of our time together while we were still healthy and mobile, so on the Sundays that I didn’t work we planned some fun little outings. I think we got to have three dates before covid hit. My daughter moved back home when her school closed, and shortly after that my married daughter and my son-in-law moved in for Pesach. My baby birds were back and my nest was full once more.

The language that the verse uses to introduce us to the mitzvah of shiluach hakan is intriguing: “If a bird’s nest happens to be before you on the way” (Devarim 22:). The use of the word “happens” implies that the encounter with the bird’s nest is a totally random, serendipitous event. Interestingly, the Hebrew word here for “happens” is yikarei, but instead of ending with the letter hey as expected, it mysteriously ends with the letter aleph. This transforms the literal meaning of the verse to: “If a bird’s nest calls out to you.”

Nothing in life is random, or happenstance; birds’ nests don’t magically materialize out of nowhere and throw themselves at your feet. What does it mean to be called by a bird’s nest?

My grandson was born last fall, minutes after Shabbos was over. He made his entrance leisurely, ensuring that his bar mitzvah parsha would be Ki Seitzei and not Shoftim as originally anticipated. Only later would I realize the significance of the fact that the mitzvah of shiluach hakan was found in this parsha, a mitzvah that my daughter had fulfilled as a very young girl.

Many explanations have been offered for this enigmatic mitzvah, but Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch posits that the commandment establishes the importance of women vis a vis the crucial role they play in establishing a home, and that this primacy extends even into the animal world. Mothers are valued so much that even a mother bird is protected at the time that she is taking care of her young. The synchronicity of this momentous event at this particular time was certainly not coincidental; certainly it was a piece of the puzzle clicking into place.

One of the most wonderful things about becoming a grandparent is watching your child become a parent. I experienced the tiniest foreshadowing of my daughter’s motherly instincts when that baby bird fell out of the tree so many years ago. The story stuck with me partially because of my obsession with the shenanigans of suburban wildlife, and partially because my daughter’s tender reaction to the scenario played on my heartstrings. This daughter was not my emotional child; this daughter held her feelings close, unlike her little sister who wore her emotions like a well-loved sweater. When I watch my daughter now with her son, when I see her nestle him close, it’s like being in an alternate universe where two timelines converge, where that little girl sitting on the ground next to the baby bird simultaneously has her own baby bird. Unfathomable, but true.

Part of our mesorah is believing that everything happens for a reason, a phrase whose ubiquity often causes us to lose sight of its veracity. Hashem sends us messages all the time, often in the form of tiny breadcrumbs that are so infinitesimal that it’s impossible to get a true taste of what they might mean. Hashem calls to us as well, but often His voice is overpowered by the cacophony of modern life. Hashem, however, is persistent. That bird’s nest? It’s not luck, or karma, or kismet, or whatever word we use to ascribe events to the randomness of the universe. It’s G-d, tapping us on the shoulder with a feather, telling us, “I’m here.”

Shortly after we bought my daughter her first cell phone, she frantically called me from the school bus. “Mommy there are vultures following the bus!”

Hearing the fear in her voice, I swallowed my speech about only using the phone for emergencies. I don’t remember much about our conversation, only that I tried to tell her that the vultures were not interested in cute little girls who were very much alive. For a millisecond, I wondered why she had called me, since there was nothing I could do to help her. Belatedly I realized that she wasn’t looking for a solution, she just wanted to hear my voice.

Years later, when texting would all but replace phone calls, I was lucky that my daughters would still call me, lucky that they had been raised in that brief bubble of time when cell phones and the internet existed but we were not yet bound by them. But now it is me who longs to hear their voices, who gauges emotions and well-being by interpreting the tone and timbre of their words.

The whole concept of an empty nest is a myth, a carrot we dangle in front of bleary-eyed young parents who can’t wait to be done with sleepless nights and endless worries. Our children never really leave us; from the minute they are born they begin the painstaking process of building a nest within our hearts, a nest that grows so big that it fills every empty space. Even when they physically leave us, that nest remains, our hearts are always full.

It’s possible, of course, that all of my stories about birds mean nothing, and the fact that both girls got to do the obscure mitzvah of shiluach hakan was a total fluke. My neshama tells me otherwise. The commandment to send away the mother bird is categorized as a chok, a mitzvah for which there is no given reason. The Rambam qualifies this and says that chukim are commandments that do indeed have underlying reasons, but these reasons are hidden from us.

For a mitzvah that purportedly has no meaning, there are an incredible number of commentators who offer various and sometimes conflicting explanations for its existence. As meaning-seeking creatures, this is our nature – to make sense of the senseless and cast significance on even the most pedestrian of our encounters.

Sometimes I wonder what really happened to the baby bird who fell out of the tree. I’d like to think that she got rescued by her mama and went on to live a long and happy life. I wonder if she had children of her own and if she existed long enough to watch them grow and leave the nest. I wonder if the sweet little bird whose melodious chirps catch my grandson’s attention out in the backyard is one of her descendants, coming to pay a visit to the next generation. I’m pretty sure she is.


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Dr. Chani Miller is an optometrist and writer who lives in Highland Park, N.J., with her family. She is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press.