Shemini: Storks Play Favorites!

Do storks play favorites when they deliver babies?

The stork (Hebrew: חסידה Chasidah) is included in this week’s Torah portion, Shemini, among birds Jews are forbidden to eat.  (Leviticus 11:13, 19). 

According to the Ramban (Nachmanides), prohibited birds are those noted for their cruelty.  This conflicts with the ancient image in many cultures of storks as not only beautiful but kind birds that, for example, bring babies (an association modernly popularized by Hans Christian Andersen’s 19th century fable, The Storks.). 

But if, as is often the case in the Bible, a name indicates character, then the stork – chasidah – is notable for its chesed (kindness).  And indeed, notes the Talmud (Chulin 63a), storks treat their friends well.  If so, why did G-d prohibit our eating them?

The Chidushai Ha-Rim [Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Gur (1789-1866)] offered this explanation: storks are kind only to their friends.  The Torah requires that we act with chesed toward everyone. 

This standard may seem both illogical and impossible.  Who wouldn’t be kinder and more considerate to family and friends than to others? 

First, the Torah is interested in fostering peace.  Hence, for example, the obligation to help unburden our enemy’s animal. The obligation to treat everyone with chesed is obviously peace-promoting. 

Second, we do often treat strangers better than those whom we know well.  We anger family and friends, pressure them (consciously or otherwise), impose upon them, play some of them off against others to get our way, favor some over others, argue with them, disrespect them, neglect them, and take them for granted.  Even if the saying “familiarity breeds contempt” is too strong, familiarity can certainly breed a chronic lack of chesed.  

So, the ethical standard of treating EVERYONE with chesed is fundamental to Judaism and worth our striving to fulfill.  It should help us to foster peace both at home and in the world.  

Shabbat shalom!  

Reference: Zelig Pliskin, Love Your Neighbor

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb