For my February article, the first after the Israel Trip, I wanted to share the stories ofone place that encapsulated some of the most powerful moments/lessons of the Israel trip. We stopped for a bike/golf cart ride at Agamon haHula, in the Northern Finger of Israel. (http://www.agamon–hula.co.il/index) This area is wedged between the Golan, the Sea of Galilee, and Lebenon. This part of the Syro-African Rift Valley is a major stopping place for birds migrating from Asia, Europe and Africa. It was highlighted as one of the stops on the trip that we would get to see my favorite bird, the Doochifat(Hoopoe Bird), the state bird of Israel. The fresh air and bike ride were a change of pace from our tour of history and time spent in the cities of Israel’s Mediterranean coast.
The time at Agamon haHula did not disappoint. As we departed the bike depot on bicycles and golf carts, we heard a full roar in the back ground. We could not imagine what machinery could make such a racket. As we came closer, we heard gunshots and trucks zooming by. Were we under attack? Our guide said for us not to worry, this is normal for Agamon haHula. Finally, we approached the wetlands and the roar refined into the squawking of birds. Thousands of birds were flying, feeding, and playing. They were enjoying the beauty of the wetlands nestled in the valley, like we were.
Dayenu; It would have been a great morning if we just saw and heard the cranes, the Doochifat, and all the other birds. Yet, our trip never had a stop that centered on a single layer of experience. Each stop in its own way captured the multiple facets of the Israel story we were witnessing. Agamon haHula was no different.
At an overlook, we met a local docent who oriented us to the area and started pointing out bird species. I asked about the Doochifat. He made a face. “Oh, theDoochifat is little, ugly, smelly bird”. He voted for Spur Winged Plover! I had forgotten that the Doochifat became the state bird of Israel in an online vote. Here, years later, this guide was framing the vote for the state bird into a Hillel\Shammaidebate. Like our rabbinic sages, Israelis have infused discussions of everyday stuff with Jewish learning style and debate. As the docent disparaged Doochifat, he demonstrated ways that Jews have used wrestling over issues through communal study to bring us closer to G!d and strengthens our sense of love and compassion for otherhuman beings. Like the debates of the Talmud, this style of debate challenges the mind, highlights values, demonstrates the importance of minority perspectives, and allows all of those engaged to wrestle with everyday issues in a way that pushes us to seek a higher, holier community. By framing the state bird vote in this style of debate, we saw that the line, “Torah study leads to them all”, is woven into Israel’s culture from it’s very beginnings.
As much as I gained insight by seeing the rabbinic debate in the state bird election, the docents answer was instructive as well. Why did he think the Spur Winged Plover was a superior choice to the Doochifat? It has a spiked elbow on its wing. If something comes to threaten or challenge the bird, it pokes out the elbows to defend itself. It fits the self image of Israelis. Whether in response to a sense of being pushed around over centuries of European history or the challenges of asserting a renewed Jewish presence in the Middle East, the Plover embodies the Israeli ethos of stand up for oneself, don’t just slink away. You see this in lots of places in Israel. Israelis don’t tend to line up. When you are walking in places, you have to ver embodies the Israeli ethos of stand up for oneself; “don’t just slink away”. You see this concept in lots of places in Israel. Israelis don’t tend to line up and when you are walking in places, you have to fill the space or you will get run over. It was interesting. It wasn’t angry or violent. Like the Spur Winged Plover, the society as a whole, and individuals routinely assert themselves and make their presence known. If you defer or pause, you will lose ground or opportunity. You are providing others an opportunity to dominate you.
Finally, in this bird sanctuary we saw the principle of “We build the land, the land builds us.” In the past, the birds were a nuisance. A lot of energy was expended to shoo them away. They were undermining Israel’s efforts to make the desert bloom and the swamps grow grain. Over time, something has changed. Now these birds are seen as a national treasure. These migration routes are part of Israel’s unique place in the world. Israel’s relationship to the land has matured. They used to force the land to conform to their vision. Now, Israelis listen to what land tells us about being in balance with creation. The migration of birds is a barometer, a sign of Israel’s importance as a link between Europe, Africa, and Asia. As much as the Israelis want to control the nature of land, they now revel in how the land and its unique geography, topography and ecosystem have shaped the values, rituals and perspectives of the people of Israel.
There are of course more places and more lessons. I look forward to sharing these over the next few months. I thank our congregation for the time to go on this trip and to the families: Jacobs, Wardlow, Bass, Feldman, Walsey and Ripple for making the trip a reality.
Rabbi Michael Birnholz