Parashat B’shalach — Why little known custom can teach a profound lesson about life
Congregation Beth Sholom, Teaneck, Conservative
About 20 years ago I learned about an old Ashkenazi custom — no one really knows how far back it goes — of feeding wild birds on this Shabbat, Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat on which we read Parashat B’shalach.
This Shabbat is called Shabbat Shirah because Parashat B’shalach includes the famous “Song at the Sea,” the poem/song of thanksgiving that Moses and Miriam led Israel in singing after they crossed the Reed Sea and were saved from certain death at the hand of the pursuing Egyptian army.
Rabbi David Golinkin, one of the preeminent Jewish legal authorities within the Conservative movement, wrote a rabbinic responsum about this custom in 2003. He explained that the custom is strange because according to normative Jewish law, we are not allowed to feed wild animals on Shabbat. We may feed our domesticated animals on Shabbat, because we can assume that they are not able to feed themselves and we want to prevent their suffering. But wild animals can fend for themselves and therefore we should not violate Shabbat by feeding them.
Over the centuries, some rabbis defended the custom of feeding wild birds on Shabbat Shirah while others denounced it and reinforced the notion that on no Shabbat can Jews feed wild animals. Rabbi Golinkin continues by offering different explanations as to why the custom might exist in the first place. I will share with you just a few of the reasons he provides. First, it is customary to feed songbirds on Shabbat Shirah because just as we (the Israelites) sang at the sea, so too the songbirds sang at the sea alongside us, and we should acknowledge their support for our redemption from Egypt. Second, the songbirds praise God in song every day and they are rewarded for this meritorious behavior by our feeding them on this one special Shabbat, the Shabbat of Song. Shabbat Shirah.
It is the third explanation, though, that raises important theological questions for me. The third explanation is that the birds are rewarded on Shabbat Shirah because of something their ancestors did in the desert each Friday night. After the Israelites complain about being hungry, God provides manna (a bread-like substance) in the morning and meat at night. The rules for collecting the manna were quite specific — no matter how much someone collected, whether is was a lot or a little, everyone ended up with exactly the amount they needed. In addition, the manna must be eaten on the day it was collected. Manna cannot be stored or hoarded.
There was an exception to those rules, though. It was Shabbat. Because the community was commanded not to collect manna on Shabbat morning, they also were commanded to collect a double portion of manna on Friday morning. Unlike every other day of the week, this double portion, half of which would be left over until Shabbat morning, would not spoil and would not magically disappear. Every Friday morning, the Israelites would take double the amount, and when they followed God’s command to not collect manna on Shabbat morning, they illustrated a trust in God, trust that their food would not spoil and that they would not go hungry.
As Rabbi Shai Held wrote several years ago, one of the many things Pharaoh took from the Israelites was their ability to trust. God’s effort to provide the people of Israel with food to eat (in the form of manna and occasional meat) and spiritual sustenance (in the form of Shabbat) is part of God’s plan to restore to them the ability to trust and to learn how to depend on each other, and God, in a healthy and productive way.
When you have been abused, as surely all slaves have been, how hard it must be to learn to trust again. How can you possibly be expected to open up your heart and soul to another, to trust that other person (or perhaps God) with your very essence? What we learn from the Israelites in the desert is that perhaps the way to increase someone’s ability to trust is not by one powerful or otherworldly moment (splitting the Reed Sea), but instead by providing daily nourishment and implied, but no less important, support and care.
In the words of Rabbi Held, “Because we are human, and therefore embodied and fragile, the question, ultimately, is not whether we will be dependent, but on whom.” (“The Heart of Torah”, vol. 1, pg. 163.)
Perhaps we celebrate wild birds on this particular Shabbat because they remind us of the journey our ancestors took in the desert, a journey not only of geographic distance, but a journey of spiritual growth as well. We left Egypt as slaves and we emerged from the desert 40 years later as a free people, free to trust, free to understand our dependence on others, and free to have faith in our God, the God who saved us and the God who taught us how to live day in and day out, with the gift of Torah to guide us.