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The Sense of Geese

Updated: Dec 8, 2023

Creation, the beauty of the creation, is a foundation of Kabbalat Shabbat.  We begin with 6 psalms, one representing each day of the week, each day of the creation of the world, culminating in Shabbat.  These psalms express God’s presence in the mountains and the seas, the meadows and the forest and the rivers, creation revealing the presence of the Creator.

For many of us, we connect to God the most when we experience the awesomeness of the creation.  As Reb Nachman of Bratslav expressed it, “Meditation and prayer before God is particularly efficacious in grassy fields and amid the trees, since a person’s soul is thereby strengthened, as if every blade of grass and every plant is united with them in prayer.”

Well, the mountains, the sea, the meadows, but what about the birds?  I am no ornithologist and I am not even an amateur bird watcher.  Growing up in Brooklyn, NY, I was a bit limited in my exposure to the avian world, beyond the ubiquitous pigeons, of course.  I still remember the overwhelming joy of discovering hummingbirds at the Philadelphia Zoo when I was in rabbinical school.  I was totally awestruck, and, to this day, I am deeply grateful for the blessing, the wonder,  of living in a place where hummingbirds are among my daily companions.  I love their tiny size, their buzzing wings, their iridescent colors, and the remarkable way that they hover in mid-air.  To me, they feel like miraculous creatures.

There are many references to birds in the Hebrew Bible:  ravens and eagles play a prominent role, and, of course, Noah famously sends a dove out from the ark in order to determine if the flood waters have abated.  Sadly, I have not found hummingbirds noted.  Eagles are so beloved that God uses the metaphor to describe the exodus, saying (19:4), “See how I bore  you on eagle’s wings.”  Even God wants to be an eagle!

The Torah provides lists of kosher and non-kosher birds; mostly we eat domestic fowl and avoid predators.  When Jews first arrived in the new world, it took a number of years and a number of rabbis to determine if turkeys were acceptable!  Think how different Thanksgiving might have been if turkeys had been declared not kosher.  We also read in the Torah the touching mitzvah of sending the mother bird away before we remove eggs from the nest.  Even birds have feelings, and they are to be respected!

The Talmud tells us that we can learn proper behavior from the animal kingdom.  According to Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, “If the Torah had not been given, we could have learned modesty from the cat, honest labor from the ant, marital fidelity from the dove, and good manners from the rooster.”  Talmud: Eruvin 100b).  So what can we learn from birds.

I’ve been thinking about this as the geese have returned for the season to Arizona.  Ron and I watch them from our patio, as they transit, morning and evening, from one pond to the other on the Stonecreek Golf Course.  Their shadows pass right overhead and they fly in a perfect formation with that unmistakable honking sound.

I was reminded of the classic reflection, which you can find in your Shabbat brochure- The Sense of Geese, written by Jim Petersen.  He asks us to consider:

The next time you see geese heading south for the winter, flying along in the “V” formation, you might be interested in knowing what science has discovered about why they fly that way. It has been learned that as each bird flaps its wings, it creates an uplift for the bird immediately following. By flying in a “V” formation, the whole flock adds at least 71 percent greater flying range than if each bird flew on its own.

Whenever a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of trying to go it alone and quickly gets back into formation to take advantage of the lifting power of the bird in front. When the lead goose gets tired, it rotates back in the wing and another goose flies point. The geese honk from behind to encourage those up front to keep up their speed.

Finally, when a goose gets sick, or is wounded by gunshot and falls out, two geese fall out of formation and follow it down to help and protect it. They stay with the goose until it is able to fly, or until it is dead, and then launch out on their own or with another formation to catch up with their original group.

What are the lessons learned for us?  If we stick together as a community and focus on a common direction, it will be much easier for us to get where we are going.  We should support and protect each other in times of need, and take turns with the tasks of leadership.  Finally, we should be very careful about what we are saying when we honk from behind:  is our honking encouragement, or something else?

May we be blessed to have the sense of geese!


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