Birds Do It

Parashat Miketz – Shabbat Hanukkah 5778

Meir Sendor

We made a trip this week with a visiting cousin to the nature reserve of the Hula valley that is renowned for the vast number and variety of birds that pass through. Almost all the migrating birds of Asia and Central and Eastern Europe take this route to Africa and back. It’s late in the fall migration season, but the huge and elegant common cranes are still here in great numbers, as well as ibises, egrets, waterfowl, kingfishers, and all kinds of raptors. Many of these birds will winter right here.

The reserve has a set of shallow lakes, forests, meadows and fields that serve as rest and refreshment stops for the birds. For those that feed on seeds and vegetation on dry land, a unique arrangement has been set up between local farmers and the birds. The farmers have set aside designated fields sprinkled with peanuts and other bird feed and the birds feed only in those fields, and everyone sticks to the agreement.

Usually we cycle by ourselves around the reserve, but thanks to a suggestion from some friends, this time we joined a group for a tractor ride with an official guide that takes you right into the marsh area where most of the birds congregate, especially the thousands of cranes. The guide explained that the birds are accustomed to the tractor and allow it to drive among them without fear, and they come quite close. By contrast, when the occasional hawk or kite flies over, the rest of the birds are spooked until they are gone.

So birds and birders have learned to get along peacefully together, to trust each other’s peaceful intentions and abide by peaceful agreements. Not so the Palestinians and their supporters. Willfully misinterpreting the significance of the U.S. decision on acknowledging Jerusalem as the rightful capital of Israel, they are using it as an excuse to incite rage and perpetrate violence in Israel and around the world. This has been a long-standing pattern: over the course of decades they have infected Islam with a shameful ideology that justifies and encourages violence. Violence in the name of religion has once again become the dangerous scourge of our planet.

Levinas, in his essay “Ethics and Spirit,” asks rhetorically: “Nothing is more ambiguous than the term “spiritual life.” Could we not make it more precise by excluding from it any relation to violence (Difficult Freedom, 6)?” Yet throughout history religions have played starring and supporting roles in instigating or justifying violence and warfare. And what about Hanukkah? We can’t let ourselves off the hook too easily here. Doesn’t our celebration of the miracle of the flask of oil also include a celebration of military victory in a war against the Hellenist oppressors? Or does it?

Several commentators have noted that the passage in the Gemara Shabbat 21b that discusses the background reason for our commemoration of Hanukkah focusses on the miracle of the oil and only hints at the war fought by the Hashmonaim against the Hellenists. By contrast, the prayer for Hanukkah inserted into the Amidah and Birkat haMazon seems to focus on the war and only hints at the miracle of the oil. Rabbi Soloveitchik, in a shiur recorded in Harerei Kedem, challenged this interpretation, however. In a close reading of the prayer Al haNisim, regarding the phrase “for the wars,” he asks “what is the relevance of thanking for the wars?” He suggests “there are those who expound “for the wars” as that which the Holy One, blessed be He, fought for us, that is, that God became the concerned party in war.” We don’t thank God for our victory in war – we thank Him for His victory. He suggests further, according to the Beit haLevi, that if we are thanking for war, it is not for any glory of war or military victory. War is terrible suffering. But we are permitted to thank God for relief from suffering, so we can thank God for relief from the war against the Hellenists and the resulting sanctification of His Name. (Harerei Kedem, 1:303-04) There is no triumphalism here. It’s not about us.

Most of the major religions have been involved in warfare and violence at certain periods in their history. The sign of a mature religion, however, is its refusal to glorify warfare, and its responsible vigilance to limit war as much as possible. It’s time for Muslims of good will to face and reject the malignant advocacy of war and violence that has been permitted to proliferate within Islam, to reject the co-opting of religion to justify political violence and find a way to cultivate the peaceful, ethically-sensitive spirituality at the heart of true religion. If birds and humans can learn to coexist and work together peacefully and harmoniously, Palestinians and Israelis should be able to take wing and rise together to “the better angels” of our spiritual heritage as well.

God willing!


3 thoughts on “Birds Do It

  1. Peter G Berman

    I think that the approach of the Rambam to this issue is interesting. Clearly , the early Rabbis were hostile to Hanukkah. Hanukkah famously is completely excluded from the Mishna. I suspect that this hostility reflects attitudes toward the Hasmonean dynasty , as well as unease about Hanukkah’s rather obvious solstice and olive harvest symbols, ( I think that the position of Bais Shammai, which calls for decreasing light each night, reflects a concern about solstice symbolism, and any belief that the increasing light symbolizes the return of the sun ). By the time of the Gomorrah it seems that the persistent popularity of Hannukah caused the Rabbis to recognize the holiday . It is treated only briefly , and tied to a minor miracle rather than to the heroism of the Maccabees. The Rambam reverses this attitude, focusing on the military victory and largely ignoring oil that burned longer than expected…I think the treatment of Hanukkah by the Rambam, along with his treatment of the Laws of War, reflects his historical circumstances. The Rambam lived in the period of the Crusades. It was a time when Jerusalem , and the Temple Mount, we’re controlled by ( in his opinion ) idolaters . The Islamic World was engaged in a struggle to liberate Jerusalem , a struggle which The Rambam supported with enthusiasm. He was a supporter , and to some extent a client of Saladin, and seems to have largely been in agreement with Islamic scholars who in this period were refining the theory of Jihad. For Rambam the Maccabees are Jihadists and for runners of Saladin, and it is all good. Or so it seems to me.

    1. Rabbi Meir Sendor

      Thanks for your always thought-provoking comments, Peter. I have to say I don’t read the Rambam the same way, though. It seems to me his description of the background of Hanukkah is balanced. In his introduction to the Laws of Hanukkah in 3:1 he recounts the political and religious context and the victorious armed struggle and in 3:2 he describes the miracle of the oil, accounting for the eight day celebration. Then, at the very end of the laws of Hanukkah, which is also the very end of Sefer ha-Zemanim, the Book of Seasons, he waxes philosophical, as he often does at the end of a set of laws. In a segue from the priority of having light in the home for Shabbat, since it facilitates a peaceful spirit in the home, he says “Great is peace, for the entire Torah was given to make peace in the world, as it says “her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace (Prv. 3:17).” Everything the Rambam says and where he places his statements is intentional and deeply thoughtful.
      The rabbinic attitude to Hanukkah and the Hashmonaim evidenced in the Mishnah and Gemara is certainly intriguing, but I haven’t studied the scholarly literature on it sufficiently to give an informed opinion. You’ve prompted me to take a look. Thanks!

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