A bird woke me up this morning. Just before dawn, a Great Horned Owl in the front yard breathed its low, hollow call. It was answered, like an echo from somewhere across the street, near the hackberries by the Dukes of Hazzard house. I don’t reckon most folks know from this old TV show, but in Nashville such things are still au courant, especially if they involve cars with Rebel flag racing stripes. The dude who played Luke Duke has owned this scrappy rental property since I’ve been here, 20 years so far, and I don’t think anyone tells him the maintenance company lets it go to hell. Apparently, an untended house is good for wildlife. I’ve seen a possum loaded with babies on her back climb the broken rose trellis, cottontails graze in the front yard unmolested, and those hackberry trees, a native species notorious for hollow limbs and weak trunks, must be condos for all sorts of cavity dwellers. Like owls.
I eased open the front door—so as not to wake the kids and start a chain reaction of need—stood in the dark, in my socks, and looked. Although I hear the owls several nights a week, I haven’t seen them yet. Our driveway is smack under a street light, which is great for driving, but not great for trying to see nocturnal critters. Also, within the sweep of that municipal nimbus, just across the street, are my neighbors’ staggeringly bright security lights cocked at eye level to blind prospective burglars and me. . . and owls? I hope the owls can see well enough to catch the mice that flow into my basement like rain.
Owls are the Jews of the bird world. In Medieval bestiaries and western Christian art they symbolize the Jewish people: those who willingly turn from the light of Christ toward spiritual darkness. If only my owls could have more dark to catch a few more mice. “Good hunting,” I wish the invisible birds, and ease back into my dark house to make a pot of tea.
Right about then is when I realized how fitting, how perfectly thematic it was to have been woken by a bird. Today is Shabbat Shira: the Shabbat of Song. The Torah portion is BeShallach, in which the Israelites cross the sea of reeds and invent Shirat ha-Yam, the song of the sea. A midrash says birds sang along out of pure joy, an embellishment that hatched the custom on Shabbat Shira to feed the birds, to thank them for the duet. The religiously observant among us don’t actually do the feeding on Shabbat, since it is considered work. I am not religiously observant. I am ornithologically observant. I try to be.
I spent most of the rest of the morning on the screened-in porch, a few feet away from two birdfeeders and many dozens of birds. Black oil sunflower in the feeders, wild mix on the ground, and fruit scraps scattered here and there. These were gifts to the birds, to thank them for their song. I stayed on the edge of the porch, hidden enough so the birds wouldn’t freak out, but exposed enough to scan a 180 degree view of sky, tree, bush and ground. This was my Shabbat Shira, watching the birds sing.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I mean the shul, Shabbat Shira would be unfolding in siddur order (which is redundant, since siddur means “that which is well ordered”). I’d be stiff in my chair, worrying about absolutely everything around me, including the chair under me, which can pivot backward and knock the knees of whomever is behind it. I’d worry about blocking the view as well, or about singing the wrong words over the shoulders of the people in front. And beside me on the aisle, because I always sit on the aisle to make quick getaways, I’d worry about the Gabbai who might materialize and tap me for a bimah honor.
One cannot refuse a bimah honor, even if one is terrified of opening the curtain at the wrong time, or committing a choreographic error and shaking the wrong hand first, or of having to hurriedly pin a stupid lace doily on one’s head because a kippah was forgotten in the morning’s earlier haste. Or, singing the blessings before the Torah reading and repeating the phrase so often repeated by accident. Or even singing it beautifully, clear and tuneful, and then later at the kiddush hear people account for this success by the fact I live with a “musical husband”. Conversely, If I suck at the blessings, it would be a surprise because I live with a “musical husband.”
Birds don’t suck at singing, ever—unless you literally count the bird vocalization produced by a sucking-in, or “inspiration.” Bird song is an indicator of “fitness,” according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and the result of sexual selection. Sex is the ultimate purpose of bird song: to lure a mate. But, songs are only part of a bird’s repertoire. Call and chirp notes transmit a range of meanings, such as to raise an alarm, claim a territory, contact other members of a group, locate chicks, call a mob, even mimic a different species—like a hawk—in order to scare away a predator.
Most folks, unless they consider themselves birders—are deaf to these distinctions. A bird sings, period. And birdsong is always beautiful, clear and tuneful. In our anthropomorphic hearing, the “inspiration” of a bird refers not only to a mechanism indicating the direction of airflow across the syrinx during vocalization. Inspiration simply means inspired. By pure joy.
On Shabbat Shira, I can recognize every bird sound around me as song, inspired by joy, just as the midrash redundantly and chauvinistically intuits. I can enjoy the beautiful appropriation of birds singing for joy at the parting of the sea, at the success of the Exodus. It doesn’t feel at odds with what I’ve learned from field guides and years of observation. As I sit on my own porch in luxurious solitude, in the warm, slow, daffodil-flecked morning, a willing extension of belief is not such a stretch. Birdsong is already a miracle.
The actual story—the Torah portion—is as much a fiction as the unscientific classification of all bird noise as “song.” I am used to suspending belief and disbelief when it comes to the Torah and, by extension, all things Jewish. The stories are foundational, but to my skeptical mind they are stories, necessary fictions. My Jewish life is built on them, whether any “happened” or not. And again, it’s not a stretch. The stories have power, meaning, function. It’s me, the Jew-by-Choice parent in the family, who celebrates the plot of this Torah portion every year with a month-long, all-out, over-the-top assumption of Passover. I kasher the house, plan the seders, create crafts and activities for my own kids and the synagogue’s, cook and bake for days, unpack boxes of costumes, frogs and plague toys by the hundreds, iron linen, order wine, polish silver, and so on. Not because the story happened according to Beshallach, but because the story is important. Crucial, in the literal sense: the story is at the cross, the intersection of belief and practice. And I happen to believe that I don’t have to believe. I practice. Which is a kind of belief, too.
Another midrash is behind the custom of feeding birds at Shabbat Shira. We feed them out of gratitude for a favor they did Moses a bit further on in the story. Out in the desert, he claimed no manna would appear on Shabbat, but that a double portion would fall immediately prior. (The double manna, by the way, is why Jews serve two challot at Shabbat dinner.) Troublemakers tried to discredit Moses by spreading manna anyway, but the birds ate it before anyone woke up. Birds let Moses keep his street cred.
My street cred seems to plummet whenever folks find out I am not “a person of faith.” If owls are the Jews of the bird world, I sure don’t want to be the owl of the Jewish world, remote from our version of spiritual light. This is one reason I keep my mouth shut a lot of the time, among Jewish and non-Jewish acquaintances. Besides, it all depends on what is meant by “faith.” I have faith in stories and the traditions they support, and in the way they can bring people together to celebrate, to learn and to do good things. Feeding wild birds is good, and if a couple of midrashim make Jews all over the world schlepp outside with sunflower seeds or kasha or bread crumbs, so much the better.
Were either of these stories mentioned at shul, I wonder? If so, I might need to rethink my habitual absence from services. The whole “people together” part is missing for me, lately. But then again, I’d really rather be here next to Carolina chickadees than next to the aisle in the sanctuary.
After a long time on the porch, my tea gone cold and my body nearly as stiff as at shul—seeing as how I had to keep still for the birds—I can’t really sustain the pretense that every bird is making a joyful noise. Noise, yes, when a blue jay bullies the house finches off the tube feeder, and when the two male cardinals fight over the birdbath. The whinnies of doves disturbed into flight, and the cartoony caws of the crows in the elm, sound far from happy. All this avian passion comes with a soundrack of chirps, chits, calls and peeps, none of it song. The birds are competing for my gift: the food I offered in honor of Shabbat Shira. I hope they go to bed with full bellies, which is part of the practical value of the day’s custom. The other part is that I made the schlepp to feed them. Now, if I could only figure out how to supply my unseen owls with bellies full of basement deermice. That would be a practical exodus I’d have no trouble singing about.