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.)