Rabbi Charles P. Sherman
A king whose renowned collection of beautiful birds did not chirp, peep, or sing a note turned to Rabbi Zusya for help. Zusya’s advise holds for rulers, parents, and employers, not just for birds. We also learn about the wording on the Liberty Bell found in this week’s sedra on the Liberty Bell.
The Kingdom of Singing Birds
My sermon this evening is addressed to those people in the congregation who are young. My definition of young is not a matter of years however. You and I know80 year olds who are still young, and other people who are 30 and are old. My definition of young is when you still love stories.
If you don’t love stories, then you are old no matter what your birth certificate says. So let me tell you a story tonight. Then I’ll explain why I’ve selected it for this Shabbat and what it has to do with this week’s Torah portion.
Long ago, in a little village in a faraway land, there was a gentle rabbi named Zusya. Zusya was a person full of curiosity, so he wandered around the village and surrounding countryside, and he saw things that no one else ever noticed. He discovered the first flowers in the spring, and he observed birds nestling way up in the mountaintops where the other villagers were too lazy or too busy to climb.
Zusya was always asking questions. Why do things fall down and not up? Where does the sun go when it sets? What’s beyond the moon and stars? The more Zusya asked, the more he learned. And so he grew wise in the ways of nature. Zusya’s neighbors all came to him for advice. If their cows refused to give milk, or if their orchards failed to bear fruit, Rabbi Zusya would tell them what to do.
Now it happened that a new king ruled Zusya’s country. His father, the former king, and his grandfather, the previous king had collected birds from all over the world:
Booby and cuckoo, quetzal and coot . . .
Cockatoo, bobolink, parakeet and goose . . .
Dickeybird, chickadee, curlew and crane . . .
Widgeon and pigeon, bluebird and jay.
The birds were very beautiful but, for some reason – nobody knew why – they did not sing. This troubled the young king for he loved birds as much for their music as for their beauty. He asked his advisors how to make them sing.
“Give them treats,” said one.
So the king fed his birds the juiciest berries, the crunchiest seeds, and the sweetest mountain water in the land. The birds ate and drank, but they did not sing.
“Build them a bigger, fancier house,” suggested another advisor.
So the king ordered his craftsmen to build an aviary ten times taller and ten times wider, and to decorate it with gold, silver and jewels. The birds flew higher and further in their new home, but still they did not sing.
“Find them mates,” said a third advisor.
So the king sent his bird catchers everywhere, even up into the mountains. But the new birds were as silent as the old.
“I will give a barrel of gold to anyone who can make my birds sing,” said the king.
From all over the kingdom, people came to try. Magicians did tricks for the birds. Acrobats tumbled and clowns stumbled. Jugglers juggled and fiddlers fiddled. A witch even cast a spell. But the birds remained silent.
“My birds will never sing,” sighed the king. “As it was in my father’s time and in my grandfather’s time, so it will be in mine.”
One day, one of the palace musicians said, “I have heard that in a village near my own there lives a rabbi named Zusya, who is wise in the ways of nature. He once got a farmer’s hen to lay eggs after everyone else had given up. Perhaps he could get your birds to sing.”
So the king sent his servants to find Zusya and bring him to the palace. Zusya was excited and a little bit scared too. He had never been very far away from home. What could he, a simple man from a tiny village, tell a king? Then he remembered, “although I have not traveled far from my village, I have traveled a lot inside it. I know what I know. Even a king cannot know everything. Besides, if a king summons, a wise man goes.”
So Zusya journeyed many days and nights. He followed the king’s men across rivers, through forests and high up into the mountains. Finally, they reached the palace. It was even more magnificent than Zusya had imagined. And the royal aviary!!! Zusya had never seen so many different kinds of birds. There were:
Treebirds and seabirds, red, green, and blue . . .
Shorebirds and snowbirds, so lovely to view . . .
From India, Arabia, the wide world around . . .
A rainbow of colors – but alas, not a sound!
Such glorious birds but not a chirp or a peep. Zusya thought about all the birds that sang in his village and up in the mountains and all along his journey. And he realized that there was something that he had to tell the king, even if it made him angry.
“Come closer, Zusya,” said the king, “I have been told that you are very wise. Can you make my birds sing?”
“Yes, your majesty,” said Zusya, but you will not like what I have to say.”
“Say it anyway,” demanded the king.
“Your majesty, if you want your birds to sing,” said Zusya, “you must let them go free.”
“What? Free my birds? Impossible!” said the king. “My birds are my treasure. My father and his father always kept birds.”
“And did their birds sing?” asked Zusya
“No, but . . .” said the king.
“You are the king now,” said Zusya. “You must do things your way.”
“But my way is their way,” said the king.
“Then your birds will be silent like theirs were,” said Zusya.
The king yearned to hear his birds sing. But he was afraid of losing them. “What if they all fly away?” he thought.
He walked around and around the aviary, looking at his lovely but silent birds. What should he do? He opened the aviary a bit. One tiny bird flew out and perched in a tree. And for the very first time the king heard it sing.
“Listen, Zusya,” he exclaimed. “Listen to that bird sing!”
The king opened the door a little wider. A few more birds flew out and they, too, began to sing. Then the king opened the aviary all the way. When the birds were free, the palace was filled with singing, lovelier than any music that he or his father or his father’s father had ever heard in their lives.
The king looked up at the sky in all directions as far as he could see. He watched the birds take wing and fly. “My birds,” he cried. “My precious birds.”
Eagle and egret, linnet, and loon . . .
Sparrow, canary, cardinal, tern . . .
Oriole, whippoorwill, nightingale, gull . . .
Raven and falcon, plover, and dove . . .”
He gathered a few feathers that had fallen to the ground. “To remember my beautiful birds,” he said sadly to Zusya.
Some birds did fly away. But some birds stayed. And when birds in other countries heard about the king who let his birds roam free, they came to settle in his kingdom. In time, there were so many birds and so much singing that the country became known as the Kingdom of Singing Birds.
And Zusya? He used his reward wisely to help the poor people in his village. Often he was invited to the palace as the king’s special advisor. And whenever Zusya visited, he traveled a different road so he could see new places and learn new thing along the way.
That is the story written by Miriam Aroner and illustrated by Shelly Haas, creators of this book, published 20 years ago by Kar-Ben Copies of Rockville, Maryland.
As I think you know, I especially love teaching stories. So what is the moral of this story? What does it mean? I believe it teaches that we can either hold on to things, or else we can hear them sing. But we cannot do both, because only the free can joyfully sing.
This is not a lesson just for children. What if all the leaders of those countries which still enslave their people understood this book? What if all those kings and dictators in the Middle East and in Africa and in Asia and elsewhere read this book and realized that if you want your people to be creative and happy, energetic and productive, you have to set them free.
What if every parent who tries to hold on to and control their children read this book and learned that if you want your children to love you by choice – and not out of fear – that you have to let them go to try their wings; you have to let them fly. Otherwise, they will never sing.
And what does this story have to do with this week’s Torah reading? (I’m glad you asked.) This week’s Torah portion includes one of the most famous verses in all of our Bible. “Ukratem dror ba-aretz ulichol yoshveha – proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” (Leviticus 25:10) Everyone knows this line because it appears on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia.
The question our sages ask is: why does the Torah use the word dror? There are lots of other Hebrew wordsfor “liberty.” Why did the Torah writers choose the word dror? As is often true in Jewish tradition, our sages offer lots of different answers down through the centuries.
I like the one by Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra who lived in Medieval Spain. He says very simply: “There was a bird whose name was Dror. When they let this bird fly free, it sang. When they locked it up in a cage, it fasted, withdrew, grew silent, and eventually it died.”
These are the words of Ibn Ezra in his commentary on this week’s Torah portion. Now how that legend got to Ibn Ezra I don’t know. And how it got from him, who lived in the Middle Ages, to the creators of this children’s book who live in the United States – I have no idea. But this I do know. When you get home this evening, if anyone asks you “what did the Rabbi speak about tonight?” tell them that he told us that freedom is the will of God.
And if they ask you “how does the Rabbi know that?” Tell them he said “a little birdie told me.”
And then tell them that the Rabbi told us a story this evening and that it was a story that was not just for the birds. It is a story from which all of us can and should learn an important lesson. Amen
– I am indebted to Rabbi Jack Riemer for this message.