I live in Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem, and I have four parakeets that are temporarily living in my apartment. One of them is becoming a pious scholar, however, before I tell you his particular story, I need to tell you how these parakeets came to me. My friend, Hershel Zvi Chernofsky, was living in another neighborhood of Jerusalem, and this past summer he went to visit family and friends in Canada. He was unable to find someone who would take care of his parakeets when he was away, so I volunteered. Hershel was supposed to return before Rosh Hashana, but due to illness in his family, he had to extend his stay. In the meanwhile, the parakeets are with me, and I am doing my best to nurture them.
The oldest parakeet is "Georgie" – the name that Hershel gave him when the parakeet was still a baby. When Georgie was very young, Hershel, who is a teacher of English and skilled with languages, discovered that Georgie had learned from him a few English phrases. For example, Georgie learned how to say, "You're so cute!"
A week before Georgie and friends were to move into my apartment, I began to imagine Georgie yelling in his high-pitched voice, "You're so cute!" My sense of humor led me to have a "heart-to heart" talk with Hershel. I reminded Hershel that my neighborhood of Bayit Vegan is a very spiritual neighborhood, and I therefore requested that Hershel teach Georgie to say some words that would be more appropriate for our pious environment. Hershel asked, "What do you suggest?" I replied, "Teach him to say, "Good Shabbos!" Hershel promised me that he would try, and he succeeded. Hershel calls me by the nickname, Yossi, and on the day the parakeets moved in, Georgie called out, "Good Shabbos, Yossi!"
Since I have a Master's Degree in Education, I felt that I should continue to teach Georgie to say other spiritual phrases. For example, during the Festival of Succos, I taught him to say, "Chag Samayach" - A Joyous Festival. Other Hebrew and Yiddish phrases that he learned are the following: "simcha" – joy, "l'chayim" - to life, "gevaldig" – great, and "zei gezunt" - be well! According to Jewish tradition, true scholarship is associated with piety, and I was therefore pleased when he began to say, "Baruch Hashem" – Blessed be the Divine Name. A pious scholar also encourages others to study the Divine teachings; thus, I was especially proud when he began to say, "Learn Torah!" Georgie usually says these phrases to his mate, and I notice that she is very impressed by his mastery of human language.
Georgie's spiritual vocabulary has strengthened my own piety, and I decided that I should take care of Georgie and the other parakeets with a spiritual consciousness. For our tradition teaches that we should do all our mitzvos - sacred deeds - with the awareness that we are serving the loving and just purpose of our Creator. For example, when I feed the birds before I eat, I remind myself that I am fulfilling the mitzvah to feed one's animals and birds before one sits down to eat.
Each morning, before I start to take care of the birds, I have the additional intention that I will be fulfilling at least two other mitzvos of the Torah. My friend Hershel Zvi is happy and relieved that someone is taking care of his birds; thus, when I feed and take care of the birds, I am fulfilling the mitzvah to "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). There is also a mitzvah to "go in His ways" (Deuteronomy 28:9), and this means that we are to emulate the compassionate and nurturing ways of the Creator. When I nurture the birds, I am fulfilling this mitzvah, as it is written, "The Compassionate One is good to all, and His compassion is on all His works" (Psalm 145:9).
There is a special pleasure in having creatures in my home who love to sing. I am a person who has a deep connection to "nigunim" - Jewish spiritual melodies, and whenever I play my tapes of nigunim, the birds usually begin to sing. I also have a daily choir practice with them. For example, I go over to the birds and start to chant a nigun. The other male, who is younger than Georgie, then bursts out with beautiful chirping and whistles. I call him the "cantor" of the group. And when most of the other birds decide to join in, it's truly beautiful. With a little more practice, I could take them on a performing tour!
I must confess that Georgie rarely joins in the singing, as he is more of a "scholar" than a singer. For example, he will jump up to greet me when I begin to teach him a new word or phrase - even when he is eating! In addition, he keeps his ear close to my mouth throughout the lesson; however, if I switch to a nigun, he loses interest and goes back down to his perch. For Georgie, the sweetest melody is the sound of learning, and his favorite "song" is the chanting of the pious words and phrases that he learned.
Georgie's unique "song" gives me great pleasure; in fact, I am grateful for all the pleasure that the birds give me. I therefore have my feathered friends in mind when I sing the following words at the Shabbos table:
"Praises shall I prepare morning and evening, to You, O Holy God, Who created all life: holy angels and the children of humankind, beasts of the field, and birds of the sky." (Kah Ribon Olam)
When the Compassionate One created all life, all creatures dwelled in "shalom" - peace and harmony - in the Garden of Eden. This realization helps me to feel a special kinship with Georgie and his friends, for I remember that my ancestor and their ancestor were neighbors in the Garden. And I also remember the prophecies which state that human beings and all creatures will once again experience the shalom of the Garden after the arrival of the messianic age. The following prophecy of Isaiah can serve as an example:
"The wolf will live with the sheep, and the leopard will lie down with the kid; and a calf, a lion whelp and a fatling together, and a young child will lead them. A cow and bear will graze and their young will lie down together; and a lion, like cattle, will eat hay. A suckling will play by a viper's hole; and a newly weaned child will stretch his hand towards an adder's lair. They will neither injure nor destroy in all of My sacred mountain; for the earth will be filled with knowledge of the Compassionate One as water covering the sea bed." (Isaiah 11:6-9)
Before the arrival of the messianic age, Georgie and his friends - who were raised in bird cages – would find it difficult to survive if they were returned to the wild, as studies have shown that birds raised in captivity lose some of the instincts and skills that they need in order to be protected from birds of prey and other dangers in the wild. This situation will change, however, with the arrival of the messianic age of shalom, for when the earth will be filled with knowledge of the Compassionate One, creatures will no longer prey on one another, "and a lion, like cattle, will eat hay." The new spiritual consciousness, explains the Malbim, a noted biblical commentator, will affect all the creatures. Georgie and his friends will therefore be able to leave their cages and enter into a renewed and elevated world, where no creature will ever harm them.
And just as they will be liberated from the confines of their cages, so too, will we human beings be liberated from the "cages" that confine us, whether they be physical, intellectual, or emotional. For in this new age, our souls will soar high like the birds of the sky, for "the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Compassionate One, as water covering the sea bed."
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen
P.S. For further study, I recommend the essay, "Emulating the Divine Nuturing" - which appears in the archive (lower section) on our website.