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Feeding the birds

01/25/2021 01:51:57 PM


Rabbi Boris Dolin

Beshalach 5780  (reposting my dvar Torah from the past year)

Waking up this morning and looking outside at the cold cloudy weather it is hard to believe that in just a few days on Tu Beshavat we are supposed to be imagining that the sap is starting to flow in the trees, that growth is beginning and yes, spring is on its way.  After the amount of time I spent digging out my car last night, I am not sure if I believe this.  But all this snow does remind me of a strange ritual of this special Shabbat, this Shabbat of the splitting of the sea, and this Shabbat Shira, which takes on a new meaning specifically because of our weather, the feeding of birds.

This ritual which is rarely acknowledged outside of orthodox communities, and is not commonly practiced: the tradition of feeding birds.  While we don’t know for sure the origin of this ritual, there are a few possibilities.  It could be that we are simply acknowledging the birds’ joyous song with the singing of the Israelites as they crossed the sea.  Others have connected birds to a midrash about Datan and Aviram, who tried to trick the Israelites and discredit Moses, who said that there would not be any manna on Shabbat, by putting out manna on Friday evening.  Birds came (as they often do when you throw what is essentially bird seed around you) to eat up the free food, and sure enough, Moses’ prediction came true.  To thank the birds for their act, we feed them.

I want to add that ritual created an interesting halachic problem for the rabbis.  According to Jewish law, one is only permitted to feed domesticated animals, including pets on Shabbat, not wild ones.  As some have pointed out, it would be possible if a person wanted to strictly keep the law, to “accidently” let crumbs drop from a napkin or plate to the ground below, but this is not the point.  On a day when we celebrate joy and remember the blessings of freedom, we also give thanks to our bird friends, who all year long surround us with their music.  The song which so naturally came from the mouths of the Israelites during their time of celebration at the Sea of Reeds was a unique moment, and we only have one Shabbat Shira.  But for the birds!  For the birds every word is a song, every day an opportunity to sing.  And for this we give them a little treat on this day.

There is another lesser known third explanation for why we feed the birds from the Chatam Sofer. As the Torah tells us, a special jug of man, mannah, was kept to be preserved for future generations, l mishmeret ldorotam

The Torah says: “And Moses said: ‘This is the thing which God has commanded: Let an omerful of it [manna] be kept throughout your generations; that they may see the bread wherewith I fed you in the wilderness, when I brought you forth from the land of Egypt.’” So Aaron collected the manna, put it in a jar and “As God commanded Moses, so Aaron laid it up before the Testimony, to be kept” (Exodus 16:32-34).

We are also told that this unopened jar of manna was placed inside the Ark of Testament and remained there throughout the travels in the wilderness, the period of the Judges and the era of the First Temple. It was in a way sort of like a time capsule, that was ready and waiting to be opened until the Jewish people needed a heavy dose of faith.  The Midrash Mechilta notes that “In the days of Jeremiah, when Jeremiah rebuked them [the people, saying] ‘Why do you not engage in the Torah?’ They would say, ‘Shall we leave our work and engage in the Torah? From what will we support ourselves?’ He brought out to them the jar of manna. He said to them, ‘You see the word of the Lord’ (Jeremiah 2:31). It does not say ‘hear’ but ‘see.’ With this, your ancestors supported themselves. The Omnipresent has many agents to prepare food for those who fear God."

Of course, along with the ark of covenant, this magical jug of manna, has been lost to history.

The Jewish people always plenty of words and stories, and pesach seders with their matzo and maror to remember the experience in Egypt, but this missing memento from this moment of deep faith, was the keepsake from the moment in our history when the Jewish people cast their lot with God is also important.  Without the actual mannah,  the Chatam Sofer writes, we symbolically re-enact the story of faith through retelling the story, and once a year through the passover seder. 

But back to the birds.  The birds who flying along one Friday evening, just happen to find a wealth of birdseed waiting for them.  According to the Chatam Sofer, The birds represent the Jewish people. Without knowing what to expect, we can find some sustenance, some important doses of hope and faith just waiting for us.  In the end it is a reminder about something that oddly is not as much a part of our Jeiwsh conversations, faith.  The story we read this week, from standing at the edge of the sea of reeds, to a hope that the journey will lead to freedom, to the manna itself--it is a story filled with questions, and quite a bit of faith.  Once a year, Parshat Beshalach invites us – maybe even compels us – to remember that faith does have a place in our story. 

But thankfully this story is also about action--which needs to go hand in hand with faith.  There is of course the well known midrash of the sea of reeds.

When Israel was at the sea, the tribes began quarrelling with one another. This one said, “I’ll go first;” the other said, “I’ll go first.” Meanwhile, Nachshon ben aminadav, the one brave soul who was ready to not just have faith but to take action, took a  step into the sea, and only then, did the sea part.   There has to be a healthy balance between Faith on the one hand and human initiative and action on the other. 

There’s a well-known Jewish story about a young woman brings home her fiancé to meet her parents. After dinner, her mother suggests that her father talk privately with the young man. "So what are your plans?" he asks his prospective son in law. “Torah is the most important thing in the world and my plan is to study in yeshiva .” “That’s beautiful,” the man says. “But how will you earn a living?” “God will provide.” “And how will you support your family?” “God will provide.” “What about paying the rent? --God Food? --God Clothing? Tuition?” God will provide.” After their conversation, the man returns to his wife. “So how did it go?” she asks. “Well, the bad news is, he has no job and no prospects; but the good news is that he thinks I'm God." 

Thankfully we don’t advocate blind faith in Judaism. The kind of faith we have needs us as much as it needs the mystery beyond us. Depending on our theologies, some may believe that there is a God above that will do God's part of taking care of us and our world; but that never takes away even more a moment from the obligation we have to do our own part. 

We know that being part of a faith and culture that is built on questions, that faith is not static.  To put it simply, sometimes we have faith, in ourselves, in others in the world, and sometimes we don’t.  And faith is not at its care about whether you believe in a supernatural God, whether you believe in Mordechai Kaplans force that makes for salvation, or whether you choose to call yourself that term that doesn’t work so well in Judaism, an atheist.   It’s a life-long journey of conviction and doubting, belief and disbelief; certainty and skepticism.  The Israelites in their long journey through the desert never became a people who had a static undying faith.  We didn’t have a messiah appear at just the right time to save us from all of our troubles, to do all of the hard work of slogging through the challenges of life.  We live knowing we are waiting for, and will never reach this perfection.  Our goal instead isn’t to cultivate or gain a certain amount of faith, to cross the sea, check the box, and then move on.  Instead we explore, question, engage in the conversation about all the world throws at us, and it is through this experiencing of life, through, like Nachshon, taking the steps into the unknown, that we create our own path.

Fri, September 17 2021 11 Tishrei 5782