One day in 1948 an old man carrying many huge packages arrived at the port of Haifa. He stood in a long line of people who had come from Europe. They all looked tired and worn from their long journey and from the terrible events that had brought them to the new State of Israel. But they all looked forward to becoming citizens of the new Jewish state.
“…So, Rabbi, what’s in all these packages?” [the customs official asked]
“They are cages, filled with birds,” he stated.
“Birds?” The officer was even more surprised. “You brought birds all the way from Europe….I can assure you we have plenty of birds–”
“No, you don’t understand. When the Nazis came, they took everyone….By some miracle I survived. I was liberated from the concentration camp. And after I was liberated, I went back to my village….But there was no one. Not one other person from Chelm had survived. I found myself alone. I stood in the burned-out shell of our synagogue, and I was alone.
“And suddenly I realized what day it was — it was Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath when we read the story of the crossing of the Red Sea. And the birds came, all the birds, as they had come every year* to eat the children’s crumbs and to sing with us! But there were no children, and there were no crumbs for the birds….I couldn’t save the children, and I couldn’t save the song, but perhaps I could save the birds….Here there is a future for the birds and for Jewish children. So here the birds will live again.”
The astonished officer stamped the rabbi’s passport and said with reverence,” Welcome to Israel, Rabbi Elimelech son of Shlomo of Chelm. Here you will find Jewish children. Here you will find Jewish people who sing. Here you and your birds will find life again. Welcome to Israel, Rabbi.” — E. Feinstein
Shabbat Shira and Birds
This story is excerpted from “The Last Story of the Wise Men of Chelm,” from the collection, Capturing the Moon: Classic and Modern Jewish Tales retold by Rabbi Edward M. Feinstein. (Springfield, NJ: Behrman House, 2008). This offers the gist, but the full story is worth checking out — as are others in this volume.
I first heard this story at Temple Micah, where Shabbat Shirah is occasion for much music-making each year. (Thanks to Rabbi Zemel for sharing his copy.)
* The custom of feeding birds on Shabbat Shirah — when the Song of the Sea is read — has been variously explained:
Moses announces that no manna will appear on Shabbat — a double portion must be collected on Friday, and only Friday’s portion will last longer than 24 hours (see Exodus/Shemot 16). Rebels (perhaps Datan and Abiram, about whom we’ll read more in the portion Korach) want to discredit Moses and so set out manna to be found on Shabbat morning. But the plot is foiled when birds arrive and eat all the planted manna.**
Another explanation: Birds joined in singing the Song of the Sea and/or are known as “ba’alei hashir,” masters of song.** Or, as Feinstein has it:
…so long had they been slaves to Pharaoh that they had forgoten how to sing. They opened their mouths, but no sound came out. At that moment, God felt their frustration. According to an old midrash,** God sent birds from all the corners of the world to teach the Israelites how to sing.
Birds and Trees
COEJL — Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life — notes that whenever Tu B’shvat (“the New Year for Trees” aka “Jewish Arbor Day”) falls on Shabbat, it is always on Shabbat Shirah. This is the case this year…
…another occasion for noting the interdependence of birds and trees (and us) through learning and celebration. As COEJL suggestions: “Create an Eco-Shabbat! When Tu B’Shvat falls on Shabbat as it does this year, it becomes an opportunity to dedicate the day to enjoying and recognizing the natural world, Israel, and our responsibilities for the environment.”
**I thought I once read the “rebel” story in Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews, but now I can’t locate it. I don’t know the source for the “singing” midrashim either, I’m afraid. For related citations and additional sources, though, please see Source Materials.
Click on the “WeeklyTorah” tag for more resources on the weekly portion throughout the year, or on a portion name for parashah-specific notes. (The series began with Numbers; posts for Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus are being drafted, week-by-week.) You can also zero-in on particular types of “Opening the Book” posts by clicking Language and Translation, Something to Notice, a Path to Follow, or Great Source in the tag cloud.
The “Opening the Book” series is presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group pursuing spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.