I have recently been reflecting upon the importance of knowing ones roots and carrying on traditions, and had reached out to my friend Esther Kustanowitz, considering how her life path is dedicated to helping Jews to connect with their roots, and inspire the exploration of ones own relationship to Judaism. One of her many jobs is as the Senior Media Consultant / Program Coordinator for the ROI community, which is a global network of Jewish innovators. Since their annual ROI Summit in Israel was about to kickoff, my timing was rather inopportune, however her delayed response pushed me to truly make the effort to explore my own relationship to Judaism. Although I often engage with the Jewish community, I have always felt a bit distant from the religion, and so I decided that it was up to me to fill in the gap. When Esther responded, one of the things she mentioned was how Judaism helps to create the structure of a narrative that binds us as a partner with the Divine as well as the community.
Language of the Birds
Countless cultures and religions have imagined birds, as the dwellers of the heavens, as divine revelations, and the bearers of heavenly messages of guidance. The 16th century Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Ben Solomon Luria, commonly known as the ARI, and renowned as the greatest Kabbalist of modern times, was expert in the language of trees, the language of birds, and the speech of angels. The Midrash teaches that King Solomon knew the language of the birds, trees and beasts, alluded in the verse:” And he spoke of trees from the cedar in Lebanon down to the hyssop that grows in the wall; he spoke also of beasts and birds, of creeping things and fishes” (I Kings 5:13). In Psalm xi, the soul is compared to a bird: “Flee as a bird to your mountain.” For me, observing the language of the birds has been through an amazing array of metaphors.
Not long ago, on a trip to my stomping grounds in Tampa, Florida, only a few hours before I was to head back to Los Angeles, I went and stood on a sea wall overlooking the Tampa Bay to reflect. I thought about the significance and irony of how by recently opening myself up to engaging with Muslims, helped to bring resolution and healing to a very polarized conflict and major divide within my family. While I was standing on the sea wall, it was drizzling, gloomy and windy. Not the most ideal and serene space to be in, but it was perfect. There were pelicans struggling to fly as they battled the winds, but I noticed that when they would swoop down and skim the choppy waves, they would freely soar due to the wind field just above the waves, created by the eddies in the lee of wave crests. I realized that a great metaphor was taking place.
The ancient Hebrew word for G-d is Ruach, which literally means “wind.” In the Tanakh, the word Ruach generally means wind, breath, mind and spirit. I realized that often times, similar to the pelicans trying to battle the wind, or Ruach, we are ultimately battling a struggle within ourselves. When we take the chance to swoop down and face the dark and choppy waters, whether that is ourselves, challenging situations or tumultuous relationships, one can freely soar within the Ruach, as the shackles from belief systems based in fear, anger and mistrust are broken, and new beginnings are brought forth. In Genesis 1:2, I believe this concept is mirrored: “And the earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.”
During the following trip to Tampa, the same metaphor would pop up, at the exact same time as my last trip, just two hours before I was to head back to LA. I decided to go for a walk around the neighborhood while listening to music and exploring my imagination, but I began to feel sad and lonely. I can have the tendency to isolate, but decided to take contrary action and break my pattern by joining my family at a harbor in the neighborhood. As I hopped in the car and headed towards them, I could feel a profound shift occurring within. As I approached the harbor, what I came upon was beyond amazing. It was very windy, and there must have been around thirty pelicans diving down towards the water and soaring. They represented how I battle the winds, or Ruach, as I struggle with my tendency to isolate, but by diving down towards the choppy waters and joining my family, I was freeing myself from the loneliness by allowing myself to feel the joy and love of their company. In that moment, I was witnessing the divine, as my imagination and surroundings were integrated.
I recently met up with my family in Los Angeles, whom I have beautifully reconnected with, and caravanned with them down the Pacific Coast Highway towards Ventura County. On the way there, I saw a magnificent flock of bird’s caravanning and traveling alongside us. After having been inspired by Muslims, to reach out and give an olive branch to those family members, the imagery of the birds swooping down in Tampa was now symbolic of our family soaring together in unity. I had posted a magnificent photo on Facebook of the birds soaring parallel to my family’s caravan, inspiring a friend to send me a link from a BBC News: Middle East column. It was titled “Bird Watchers Find Heaven in ‘Superhighway’ Israel.” In the article, Dr. Yossi Leshem, director of Israel’s International Centre for the Study of Bird Migration, relayed how above Israel and Palestinian territories, is the second busiest bird migration route in the world, trailing behind Panama in Central America. Every autumn, over 500 million birds cross Israel’s airspace, heading south to warmer weather in Africa. “Politically, it’s a disaster, but for bird migration, it’s heaven.” Due to the warm thermal air rising off the land below, the birds do not even have to flap their wings. The author of the article mentioned observing hundreds of pelicans soaring effortlessly, and I began to think again about the pelicans I had observed in Tampa, that were struggling to fly until they threw themselves towards the depths of the ocean and soared. The extraordinary bird migration in the area could have a significant amount of metaphors constructed regarding Muslim and Jewish relations. Birds have substantial meaning within both Judaism and Islam. The Talmud names about one hundred classes and varieties of birds, and I imagine all of them fly over Israel and Palestinian territories.
Since my question to Esther, I have come to understand that I am much more connected to my Jewish roots then I had believed, and that my own narrative already has many Jewish themes interwoven throughout it. I believe that as we are on our journey through life, it is truly important to be rooted in the authenticity and integrity of our own unique essence, allowing us to be more present with the divine. Each and every day, with open eyes, we can observe how similar to the Torah, our lives are full of symbolism and wonder, such as through the divine language of the birds.