Rabbi Weinreb’s Torah Column, Parshat Shemini (Shabbat Parah)

The Stork and the Heron

I don’t think that parents tell this one to their children anymore, but they used to when I was a boy. When children once inquired about where babies come from, they were told that the stork brought them.

The stork is a migratory bird that was very familiar to people living in central Europe. The stork would suddenly, almost mysteriously, appear in the spring after a long absence during the cold winter. The stork would nest on rooftops, adjacent to, and often right on top of, the chimneys of the house.

Since every child was witness to the absence and ultimate return of these large white birds with long beaks, it was only natural that parents would avoid telling their children the “facts of life” for as long as they could get away with, attributing the appearance of new babies to the stork.

Interestingly, the stork makes its appearance in this week’s Torah portion, Shemini. The Bible, however, does not stoop to the once common myth that the stork was responsible for the delivery, if not production, of new babies. Indeed in next week’s Torah portion, Tazriah, the opening verses contain a fairly explicit account of the biology of conception and childbirth.

But the Bible does enumerate the stork as one of the numerous “unclean” birds; that is, as one of the species of birds that a Jew is forbidden to eat.

The Hebrew term for the stork is “chasidah”, upon which Rashi has a fascinating commentary. He begins by identifying the chasidah as “a large white fowl” and applies the old French name tzikonia to it. A quick consultation with a children’s book on zoology informed me that the European white stork, which nests on rooftops and in trees and is a symbol of childbirth, is technically classified in Latin as ciconia ciconia.

Rashi was apparently very familiar with this bird. He continues to suggest the reason why the ciconia ciconia, or stork, is called “chasidah” in Hebrew. After all, that Hebrew term means “the kindly one”, the one who does acts of chesed (loving-kindness). The reason, already offered in the Talmud, is that the stork “is kind to her friends”; that is, generous and protective of other members of its own species.

Keen students of the parsha long ago began to wonder why a bird that was so kind and passionate should be listed among the unclean fowl. After all, it is commonly assumed that those animals which are prohibited to be eaten are each representative of some undesirable character trait. Here is a bird which deserves to be called “chasidah”, pious one. Why should it be considered unclean?

One such keen student, and it is difficult to ascertain his identity, long ago suggested that the problem with the chasidah is that, although she is kind, she is kind only to her friends. She shows compassion only for other members of her own species. To those who are not her friends but belong to a different species, she is indifferent and, often, even cruel.

Being kind in a discriminatory fashion is a negative character trait. Hence, the stork is treif, forbidden.

What a powerful and relevant lesson for each of us! Barely two weeks ago, we witnessed the effects of a devastating earthquake and tsunami wreaked upon the islands of Japan. We also observed all the graphic and horrible images of human misery and suffering. We all were summoned to contribute in any way we could to assist the Japanese victims.

But who among us can deny not having at least had a fleeting temptation to look away from that human suffering because it occurred so far away from us, to people who are unrelated to us? It is only natural that our response would be, “Charity begins at home,” and that we would turn to the needs of our own friends and close ones, blotting out the cries and tears of those of an “alien species”.

The message that Rashi gives us is clear. Such a reaction is treif. It is utterly wrong to ignore the suffering of human beings just because they are different or distant from us. The chasidah is sympathetic and charitable, but only to its own kind. We are not allowed to emulate the chasidah.

Just after the chasidah is listed in this week’s parsha, in Leviticus 11:19, we find mentioned another bird, the anafah. Rashi describes the anafah as an ill-tempered large fowl, an angry bird, and hazards a guess that it is the heron, with which he was personally familiar, living in north central Europe.

If the stork symbolizes the evil of discriminatory generosity, the heron symbolizes the evils of anger.

Anger is judged very negatively by the Jewish tradition. Our Sages tell us that it is by the manner in which a person controls his anger that his true character can be assessed. The Talmud tells us that a person who becomes angry is susceptible to grievous errors, so that even the wisest of men can make mistakes if he permits himself to become angry.

Our Sages offer an example of a wise man who fell prey to anger and then erred. That wise man was none other than Moses himself, and the incident happened in our very Torah portion, Shemini. “And Moses diligently inquired for the goat of the sin offering, and, behold, it was burnt; and he was angry with Elazar and Itamar…” (Leviticus 10:16) In the immediate subsequent verses, it became clear, as Aaron, Moses’s brother, pointed out, that Moses “rushed to judgment” and was mistaken. To his credit, Moses was not too embarrassed to admit his mistake.

Malbim, a brilliant and often creatively insightful 19th century commentator, suggests with regard to these verses that there is a reciprocal relationship between anger and error. Yes, when one is in a state of anger, his judgment is clouded, and he is prone to error. But it is also true, he argues, that when one is blinded by error, he is prone to anger. Often, seeing the facts clearly precludes the angry response.

Once again, we have seen the great wisdom that can be accessed by merely “scratching the surface” of the biblical text. On the surface, this week’s biblical portion offers us the names of two species of fowl which are ritually excluded from the Jewish menu.

But beneath the surface, these two birds, the stork and the heron, open up two vast chapters in the comprehensive book of Jewish ethics. From the stork, we learn how important it is that our charity be inclusive and extend even to populations far-removed, geographically, ethnically or religiously, from us.

And from the heron, we learn about the dangers of anger and about the dynamic relationship between our intellectual powers and our emotional passions. Sometimes, intellectual faults lead to sinful emotions. More frequently, unbridled emotions compromise our intellect in ways which can be disastrous.

Two lessons from two birds: Be sensitive to the needs of all human beings whether they resemble you or not, and control your anger, lest you fall into the snares of errors and mistakes.