Do you remember what your favorite story was when you were four or five years old? My absolutely favorite was Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss The book is about an Elephant named Horton, my hero. Mayzie, a very irresponsible bird, convinces Horton to sit on her egg while she takes a short “break”. Well, she migrates and parties the whole winter in Miami beach! Horton just stays on that egg. It’s crazy: the sight of an elephant sitting on a nest in a tree! Horton is laughed at by his jungle friends, hammered by bad weather, caged by hunters, forced on a terrible sea voyage, and finally put in a traveling circus. Each time Horton’s laughed at or hurt he says: I meant what I said and I said what I meant, an elephant’s faithful 100%. Finally Mayzie returns for her hatchling. But when the egg hatches, the emerging creature has a trunk and big ears (so much for genetics!) Mayzie doesn’t want the hatchling, and Horton and the chick return to the jungle together (yachad!) . Why was this story my favorite? Not sure, but the world is big and scary when you’re five, you might even feel a gawky hatchling, maybe I needed to know I’d be cared for anyway, by the power of promises
Another memory, this time 7 years old, perhaps you have a similar story to recall: summer in the Catskills with my Dad and Grandparents: there was a nest above the doorway to the hotel cottage. One early morning I opened the door to find a scraggly little nestling had fallen, mouth open, helpless and wiggling. My Dad placed it gently back in the nest, while an adult bird swiped by his head. I felt pretty amazed at the whole scene. In Parashat Ki Tetse – there’s this wonderful passage in Deut 22:6 If you come upon bird nest before you on the way, in any tree or on the ground, with nestlings or eggs, and the mother sitting on the eggs or nest, you must not take the mother with her children. Send the mother away and then take the young, to have goodness and long life. The text uses the same words for human mother and child. This passage begs the question why? Is it to preserve our meal ticket, by leaving the mother to lay more eggs? Is it really an act of kindness, and a recognition of kinship to our feathered friends? I like this answer, but maybe it’s a whole lot more than that, for its reward merits goodness and long life, and the wording whispers etyz chayim tree of life. Perhaps we’re to really notice the miracles of eggs, hatchlings and Momma birds. Perhaps the nests are like our own “nests”: after all, not all animals look after their young, but birds do it big time: did you see March of the Penguins? It’s so crazy because the devotion of those Dad penguins is the only thing ensuring penguins at all! The nest and devotion of the parent birds are powerful reminders of family connections that enrich us and along the way, baderech, sustain generations. In my experience of becoming Mom, this connection changes everything – a holy and powerful thing, a gift, this bond! Families may be messy things, babies can be colicky, but this can be pure.
This portion also has much to say about parenthood and promises and memory, and breaking those promises, including this: We must not break our pledged to God: in 23:24: Guard what you speak from your lips and do as you have vowed to Adonai you God, as you pledged from your mouth. The Haftarah flips to the promises of God to us, the last verse reminds me of Gershwin’s Our Love is Here to Stay The mountains may crumble, Gibralter may tumble, (they’re only made of clay) but My love is here to stay. (Isaiah 54:10, sort of)
Here’s a crazy thought: we must chase the bird away out of respect for her instinctive vow to care for her nest, because that vow is life. Among the deepest vows are the ones we make to our children. We promise on the day our beautiful child is born to protect them, to never let them fall, and then of course, they do – right out of our arms or off the steps, and onto the brick or into the swimming pool, and we bring them tearfully to the emergency room. We promise to always be there, and then miss something important, or maybe we just don’t listen hard enough one day when they need us to hear. What of our vows? We are moved to protect them, and protect ourselves from the unthinkable loss of them. And if we lose them, what of God’s vow of eternal love? (this is an unexpected place writing these words took me to – feel free to reply!) Surely the kindest, most loving act would be not to take nestlings at all! But the world does not, cannot sustain every young life. That promise unfulfilled is the most heartbreaking of all.
And real, potent and through it all, Horton endures. The promise that endures in spite of the hunters, and the rain and the mockery is love and life and hope. What will emerge from the bonds of faith and love we make? New life, the end of loneliness for elephants and hatchlings alike, a kinder world of chesed (loving kindness) and hatchlings that bear our dedication, trunks and ears.
Will we be like Horton this Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?. Will me mean what we say and be faithful 100%? And what about Kol nidre, that prayer in which we ask that all our vows be absolved – How can that be synched? Feel free to share your thoughts on this too!
Back to Horton and that hatchling, there is a beautiful tradition on erev Shabbat of parents blessing their children with the priestly benediction. In studying that section from Naso this year, I struggled with what gives us the right to bless, and what exactly we want from this blessing for our children: is it the magic of its protection? I don’t know, except that it’s part of the incubation process. We bless as an outlet for our dedication, we mean what we say 100%. We hope our hatchlings will leave our nests influenced to turn around and want to bless others, with the trunk of memory, and the ears to listen (to what, I am not sure) Among the most beautiful versions of the priestly benediction in song, is Sam Glaser’s Blessing, which he wrote as his firstborn approached, this English verse leading into the Hebrew benediction; samglaser.com and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kPB0tOxNv8g
May God watch over your soul
Guiding every step along the way
May you know deep in your heart
The love God has given you every day
May the light of heaven above reflect in your eyes
So you see all the wonder in the world!