We live in a world where eating clean, living green, recycling and biotechnology have become commonplace jargon and practices. The majority of people have come to understand that only so many resources in this world are available for human consumption. To keep these resources feasible and viable, we need to support, cultivate and protect them.

Well before environmental spokespeople were echoing a call for greater sensitivityDoes it not sound like the Torah is advocating for sustainability? towards the planet, G‑d had formulated the concept in Parshat Ki Teitzei.

Here, we read of a most curious situation. When we see a mother bird hovering over a nest that contains chicks or eggs, and we wish to eat them, we must send the mother bird away first. The mother bird must not be part of our bountiful catch.

There are several beautiful explanations for this, one of which is the following: People have the right to take and consume the eggs in this scenario, but they cannot kill an entire species. And even though they are not actually doing that in this example, it is as if they are, for they are extinguishing two generations of birds.

There is something cruel about killing a mother together with her children—something that sounds a lot like over-consumption. Indeed, there is something ethically corrupt in pursuing practices that may lead to extinction1.

Here, not only do we see a touching sensitivity towards animals, but we hear language that sounds like the forerunner to some basic environmental principles!

Does it not sound like the Torah is advocating for the concept of sustainability?

Sustainability, in the modern sense of the word, means development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Or, in simpler language, don’t take more than your fair share.

The Torah was an environmental trailblazer, way ahead of its time. It teaches us that in order to perpetuate the fragile balance of our ecosystem, we cannot exploit it, and we shouldn’t take more than we need.

When we capture animals faster than they can reproduce, we endure too many losses to maintain a healthy population. That over-killing can drive a species to extinction. Ultimately, this can collapse the ecosystems that we depend on.

More than that, the act of sending away the mother bird—like all acts of compassion—teaches deep lessons. A person can only be compassionate by shelving self-centeredness and considering the entire situation he or she is part ofOver-killing can drive a species to extinction before acting. When we send away the mother bird, we are being sensitive to her needs, to the earth’s need and to the greater future needs of humanity.

G‑d gave us the right to eat and not deplete. We have a right to the eggs, but not a right to the mother.

To be attuned to the needs of the mother bird is to be attuned to something larger than ourselves; in doing so, we elevate all that is part of this most delicate, timely and universal message.