I very much enjoy Reb Yaakov Astor’s beautiful gadlus haBorei articles every week in this newspaper. They are replete with accurate scientific facts and brilliant Torah commentary on how subjects from ordinary cows to the deepest space reflect the glory of Hashem’s creation. However, two things have led me to express my own wonder at one of Hashem’s most beloved creations, the birds.
First of all, poskim (Mogein Avrohom 324:7; Mishnah Berurah 31; Kitzur 87:18) tell us that this Shabbos is devoted to these beautiful creatures. Secondly, someone gave me a copy of the book An Immense World by Pulitzer Prize winner Ed Yong, who is a science writer at The Atlantic. The book (all page numbers are from there) describes and illustrates with many pictures the myriad ways in which animals sense the world around us. Each has its own method and body parts to facilitate its perceptions, reflecting the incredible diversity and multiplicity of Hashem’s briah. Today, we will focus on just one of Hashem’s glorious creatures, the bird.
First, let’s look more deeply into the custom to feed the birds before or even during this Shabbos. The Sefer Matamim (Warsaw 5609, “Shabbos” No. 2) quotes from the Yalkut that when Doson and Avirom planted monn to attempt undercutting Moshe Rabbeinu’s prediction (16:26) that no monn would fall on Shabbos, the birds came and whisked it away. Many seforim and poskim (e.g., Pardes Yosef, Beshalach; Taamei Haminhagim, Likkutim, 97-99, etc.) tell us that we make a special effort to feed the birds on this Shabbos in honor of this kiddush Hashem and avoidance of a chillul Hashem that the birds provided. The only issue is whether or not this may be done on Shabbos or only Erev Shabbos (Sefer Tosafos Shabbos 324:17; Chazon Ish, Orach Chaim 59:1; Aruch Hashulchan 324:2), which is beyond the scope of this article.
However, there is another custom as to why we feed the birds around this Shabbos (the Steipler used to do so on Sunday after Shabbos Shirah). The Maharal (see Sefer Bishvilei Haminhag, page 181) established a custom amongst the melamdim in Prague to gather all the children together on this Shabbos and tell them the story of how the birds accompanied the Bnei Yisroel’s shirah with their own song after Hashem split the Yam Suf. It seems that they then fed the birds in honor of their own shirah on this day. This minhag is also based upon the Medrash (Shemos Rabbah, Beshalach 21). We will therefore examine several relevant aspects of birdsong as it relates to Shabbos Shirah.
Let us begin with the Medrash known as Perek Shirah, which enumerates the posuk representing the song of many creatures. The song attributed to the tzipor, which some meforshim teach refers only to a songbird and others to the entire range of birds, is “Even the bird finds its home and the free bird her nest…” (Tehillim 84:4). The relevance of this posuk has sometimes been related to a bird’s homing instinct or even to the presence of birds at the Kosel Hamaarovi. This is because birds are “homebodies” who work hard to create a nest where they can feed and raise their young until they are ready to fly. They teach them their song so that they, too, can praise Hashem, teaching us many lessons. First of all, they remind us that parents must be teachers of their children as well (see Pachad Yitzchok, end of “Shavuos,” in Yiddish). Secondly, their musical presence at the last remnant of the Bais Hamikdosh demonstrates their pining for kedusha, wherever they can find it, a wonderful trait for us all.
However, with the help of Mr. Yong, I would like to explore a few new appreciations of birdsong from which we can glean fresh methods of raising our voices in song to Hashem. The zebra finch “listens for fast details that humans cannot perceive in their songs.” This tiny fact alerts us to another. Many of our tzaddikim saw, heard and understood things that were beyond the rest of us. The Steipler used to tell of his brother-in-law, the Chazon Ish, that souls from Olam Haba would often visit him and people in the room could not hear or see them. Later, when the Chazon Ish casually mentioned certain information, it became obvious that he alone had heard the shirah from above. Interestingly, the Sefer Shomer Emunim (page 381) states that the reason babies are soothed by lullabies is that “they still remember the neginah del’eila – the celestial symphony they just left – and don’t feel the loss of kedusha as strongly.”
Perhaps the most important lesson, though, may be gleaned from the blue-throated hummingbird, which “sings ultrasonic sounds that it cannot hear.” This amazing fact alerts us to an important tool for our own avodas Hashem. We don’t have to understand everything. One of the reasons we daven in Lashon Hakodesh instead of whatever language we know best is that the Anshei Knesses Hagedolah embedded thousands of kavanos – profound meanings – into the seemingly simple words of our brachos and Shemoneh Esreis. However, the number of letters is carefully counted, the number of words has been tabulated in the most esoteric of spiritual computers, and the result is a song that can open and pierce the heavens. But we don’t have to know how or why. All we must do is sing the song.
I have heard from gedolim that the Gaonim and Rishonim who wrote such exquisite piyutim and poetic prayers were not really poets or musicians. They were people of kedusha and taharah who heard the songs of heaven and transcribed what their holy ears alone could hear and absorb. The birds were zocheh to this gift as well when they made a kiddush Hashem over 3,000 years ago. Another surprising trait of songbirds such as robins, jays, cardinals, sparrows, finches and starlings is that, unlike most other birds, “they can sense sweetness” (page 51).
We might interpret this interesting fact as a middah that allows us to see the best – i.e., sweetness – in another person or even in events that seem sour on the surface. The story of the rebbe Rav Zusia of Anipoli is well-known. A chossid of the Maggid of Mezeritch who had many problems sought the Maggid’s help in maintaining any feelings of joy amidst his troubles. The rebbe referred him to Rav Zusia. Arriving in the most dilapidated area of Anipoli, he knocked on a door that seemed as if even the gentle sound would break it off its hinges. When the smiling Rav Zusia opened that door, a sorry sight greeted the chossid. A leaky ceiling, freezing cold rooms, empty cupboards and sick children were all in his line of sight. Somewhat superfluously, he repeated the Maggid’s instructions, to Rav Zusia’s surprise. “I think you misunderstood the great Maggid’s address,” he intoned seriously. “I wish I could help you, Reb Yid,” he apologized, “but I have never had a bad day in my life. You must seek someone who had difficulties and overcame them.”
Apparently, all songbirds can sense sweetness because their job is to sing a shirah to Hashem that can only be done out of the feeling that life itself is sweet and delicious. Perhaps, instead of waiting for things to sing about, if we were to emulate the songbird’s ability to find nectar everywhere, Hashem would shower us with ever more sweetness in our lives.
Another amazing lesson from songbirds (page 314) is at the moment just a supposition in the minds of many scientists. But it makes a great deal of sense: “Songbirds might be able to see Earth’s magnetic field.” This comes from a process with which we are all familiar. Some birds migrate over great distances, such as our human friends who are currently running to warmer climes. However, the birds fly there without a GPS, maps or any visible guidance, other than their Creator above. As yet not completely proven, some scientists now believe that songbirds in particular have the ability to travel thousands of miles in the right direction because of their ability to see magnetic fields. Be that as it may, the lesson from birdsong may also be that when we sing a song of praise to Hashem, He shows us the way. He leads us in the right direction and makes sure we arrive safely where we need to be. This, too, is a valuable life’s lesson. If we perform one of our purposes in life, to be meshabeiach the Creator, He rewards us by guiding us where we should be. Perhaps this also explains the greatness – indeed popularity – of reciting Nishmas when we feel lost and unsure of our next step. The best advice is, like the songbird, to sing of Hashem’s glory and then He will take us where we need to be.
Finally, there is a bird lesson that relates directly to the Shiras Hayom and an important element in our lives. Back to Mr. Yong: “Bird enthusiasts have long suspected that bird hearing works on a faster timescale than ours” (page 224). He records many “elegant experiments” that now prove that songbirds such as zebra finches and mockingbirds “learn their songs from listening to each other.” He cites many scientists who remain in amazement at the ability of these birds to imitate almost instantly what they hear from others, including extremely complex musical productions. The Gemara (Sotah 30b) records a disagreement amongst Tannaim if Klal Yisroel repeated what Moshe Rabbeinu sang or all sang together immediately in prophetic unison. We know that a shirah must be spontaneous and heartfelt. Yet, the experience of Krias Yam Suf may have been so overwhelming that even emulating Moshe Rabbeinu could be done with rapture and ecstasy. The malachim call to each other to sing Hashem’s praise, and at some point, both angels and human beings are singing together. This is mirrored by the songbirds as well. We, too, must seek to emulate our teachers, but we must also find our own shir chodosh to sing a personal song of gratitude for all that He has done for us personally.
May we all soon sing the ultimate song of geulah with Moshiach Tzidkeinu bimeheirah beyomeinu.