For the Birds: Loss and Letting Go

on Friday, 01 September 2017. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon On Ki Teitzei 5777

September 1, 2017

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon,

Temple Emanu-El

Tucson, Arizona

Although I spend a good deal of time in the great outdoors, my knowledge of zoology is, at best, minimal. My daughter, Cipora, is currently taking a high school field science class in she learns to identify many species of birds by sight and sound.  She ran her electronic flashcards by me one night—and, out of 25 birds, I believe I correctly identified two.  Apparently I am not much of a birder.

Tucson is, I am told, one of the top birding destinations in the country--in fact, in the world.  There are canyons here that people travel from around the world to visit so that they can add to their “collection” of birds.  Although you know now how pathetic my efforts are in this area, even in our own backyard and at our fountain we see hummingbirds, finches, hawks, cardinals, and many more unidentified species.  Coincidentally, I can tell you that this particular Torah portion we read Labor Day weekend this year is, literally, for the birds.  I will explain what I mean in a moment.

Ki Teitzei, our parashah, has more mitzvot than almost any other Torah portion, and more specific commandments.  Some have great meaning and power, some are very minor ones, some are in between.  There is one particular minor mitzvah that caught my eye as I was studying this week.  If, it says, along the road you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, and the fledgling or eggs are inside of it, and the mother is sitting over the fledgling or the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young.  Let the mother go.  Take only the young, that you may fare well and have a long life. 

True, it is not the most important mitzvah in the history of Judaism, but it is an intriguing one.  If we see a bird sitting on her eggs, or with her young, we are to chase her away before we take the eggs—or, if we wish to take the young for some reason or another--lest she see her own children be turned into omelets.  The rabbis debated and discussed this odd little mitzvah: what could it possibly mean, because, like every mitzvah in the Torah, it must have great importance?  That last phrase, if you do this mitzvah l’ma’an yitav lach vha’arachta yamim, your life will go well, and that your days will be lengthened,” is an unusual and atypical kind of formula.  For if you do this mitzvah, you are promised a specific reward. 

Now, that’s not typical of most of the commandments in the Torah.  Here you are promised not only a specific reward, but the specific reward of a long, good life, just for doing this peculiar little mitzvah.  Just think, no matter how high your cholesterol, no matter how bad  the shape you are in, no matter what your doctor told you at your last physical, all you have to do to have long life is chase away the mother before you take her eggs.  A pretty good deal. 

A teaching from Abram Mordechai of Ger, the Gerer Rebbe on this particular section says that this is a wonderful mitzvah because it is so easy.  You see, most commandments require intention and preparation.  You are required to think about them in advance and make special effort.  You might even have to take a chance to do them.   But here you are just walking along the road; maybe it’s near a swamp at San Diego, maybe it’s in your own backyard in Tucson.  You chance upon a bird that has eggs, you chase it away, and then you take the eggs.  You have fulfilled a mitzvah.  It’s a lot easier, for example, than preparing for a Bat Mitzvah or Bar Mitzvah, which takes a year.  Certainly it’s easier than Brit Milah.  It’s easier than so many of the commandments.  For the Gerer Rebbe this is a truly wonderful mitzvah, the best kind, the kind you just fall into.

There is a famous story associated with this mitzvah, however, which could lead one to believe that maybe even easy mitzvahs, even the easy commandments to fulfill, and not without their complications.  Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah was one of the great scholars of the Mishnaic period, who lived in the second century.  He, along with three or four others, was considered among the greatest scholars of his generation.  There is a wonderful book called As a Driven Leaf that fictionalizes his life, but the Talmud has plenty to say about him all by itself.  For Elisha ben Abuyah, this great scholar, this leader of the Sanhedrin, this champion of Jewish knowledge and teaching, became, at one point in his life, an apostate, and moved away from Judaism, never to come back.  In fact, he became a pagan.  It was a great scandal.  In the Talmud they call him HaAcher, the Other, for he had left Judaism.  Mind you, he was not a fringe player.  Here he was, this great scholar, paragon of Jewish knowledge, judge and decisor of crucial laws, who totally abandoned Judaism. 

Milton Steinberg treated the story in this novel As a Driven Leaf.  He described the moment in which Elisha ben Abuyah decided that he no longer would believe.  You see, his friend Rabbi Meir’s two children had died, and Elisha ben Abuyah tried to comfort him.  Rabbi Meir later went on to become perhaps the greatest figure of the 2nd century in Jewish thought and teaching and law, and yet his two twin boys had been taken from him by a sudden plague.  Elisha was affected by that death, but still believed and comforted Meir.   But perhaps his faith had been touched a little. 

The story goes that a little after that incident he was having a conversation with some of the other rabbis as they walked on the road, when they looked up and saw a boy climbing on the limb of a tree.  They could see the object of his attention—a bird’s nest, sitting there with the mother bird inside of it, and obviously there must have been some eggs in the nest.  The boy crawled along, and in fulfilling this mitzvah, of which we are told “vayitav lach, vha’arachta yamim, it will go well with you, and your days will be extended”— to guarantee himself that reward, the boy chased away the mother bird.  But in doing so, he lost his balance, fell from the tree limb, struck the ground, and died.

This passage is from Milton Steinberg, who picks up the story at just that moment:

Elisha trembled from head to foot, cold perspiration covered him, nausea writhed through his entrails.  The scene he had just witnessed brought with sudden vividness to his mind the tragedy that had befallen Meir’s children.  The two pictures merged into a unity—the same, incredible.  A wild protest stormed up in him against the horror of it, its senseless waste of life, its wanton cruelty.  The scholars turned and slowly mounted the slope together, talking meanwhile, trying to restore their confidence.  To solidify a crumbling universe.  At first Elisha did not listen, so stunned was he, so dazed his senses.  But as his mind recovered from its initial disorganization, he heard one of them say, ‘He will have his length of days.  God is just.  It is hard to understand, but let us remember there is a better world, in which it is all day, a day that stretches for eternity.’  At once, Elisha knew the answer to the question he had never ventured to face before.  The great negation crystallized in him, the veil of deception dissolved before his eyes.  The only belief he still cherished disintegrated, as had all the others.  The last tenuous cord that bound him to his people was severed.  And when the sages droned on, their words buzzing like flies, revulsion swept Elisha.  He could no longer tolerate their deliberate blindness.  In cold desperation he silenced them. ‘It is all a lie,’ he said with a terrible quiet in his voice, ‘there is no reward.  There is no judge.  There is no judgment.  There is no God.’

The wind blew in from the sea across horror stricken faces.  The sun, weltering so long in its own blood, died slowly.

Elisha ben Abuyah lost his faith.  Is that possible for us, as well?  If we are to be tested even by a simple commandment—where do we turn? 

When faced with accident and loss, with terrible tragedy, somehow the impossibility of ever putting the genie back in the bottle, of ever putting right what is wrong, strikes us.  Sometimes we can allow our faith simply to float—perhaps it will return.  But usually it does not.  We try hard to rationalize the loss, to work it all out.  And sometimes that works.  Sometimes. 

Acceptance is the hardest of lessons for Jews.  We are not well constituted to accept loss or tragedy, senseless or otherwise.  We are used to arguing with each other, even with God.  We are used to considering everything to be a discussable issue.  We are not used to taking things on faith.  What do we do with mitzvot that seem to lead us only to loss?  What do we do, how do we feel and think, when we do what appears to be right and terrible things happen?

But perhaps these mitzvot, these simple commands, this simple command, means something else.  In Jewish tradition the acceptance of a commandment, the ability to see what has happened, the acceptance of faith, comes into a different category than it does in many other religious traditions.  As Jews we search, we probe, and we write drashot that explore and look for meaning.  We are used to that—two Jews, three opinions.  Every Rabbi answers a question with a question.  And there is always another question.  You can never finish a Jewish meeting, can you?  We don’t even know how to say goodbye very well.  You know the old joke ‘Non-Jews leave without saying goodbye.  Jews say goodbye and don’t leave.’

Somehow we want an explanation, we want to understand, we want to know.  Yet some things really are beyond probing and questioning.  Some mysteries, some losses, are beyond rational argument and clever discussion and continual exploration.

A poem, by the Australian poet Michael Leunig, one of my favorites, says that

We search and we search and yet find no meaning.

The search for a meaning leads to despair.

And when we are broken the heart finds its moment

To fly and to feel and to work as it will

Through the darkness and mystery and will contradiction.

For this is its freedom, its need and its calling;

This is its magic, its strength and its knowing,

To heal and make meaning while we walk or lie dreaming;

To give birth to love within our surrender;

To mother our faith, our spirit and yearning;

While we stumble in darkness the heart makes our meaning

And offers it into our life and creation

That we may give meaning to life and creation

For we only give meaning we do not find meaning;

The thing we can’t find is the thing we shall give. 

To make love complete and to honour creation.

On this Shabbat, whatever part of your heart that has been wounded in the last year, whatever commandment or act you left unfulfilled, whatever mitzvah you did that caused injury, let it go.  Release the demand you place upon yourself to explain the inexplicable, to unravel the impossible knot.  For if you can do this, if you can finally let go of the need for absolute information, you may find within yourself the capacity simply to allow God—and the heart—to heal.  If you can let go of the resentment, the disappointment, the failure, the loss, the pain, then you can begin to allow God to bring you to healing.  If you can let that need to control and explain fly away—like the birds do—you may find that you are able to move past those losses towards wholeness. 

This is a complex, challenging truth.  It is essential, if not easy.  It may be what this text truly means.

But if you can do that, then, with all the losses and vagaries of your own experiences, your own life may be vayitav lach, v’ha’arachta yamim—truly good, and its days extended by peace.   May this be God’s will; and may it be our will, as well.  Shabbat Shalom.

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