These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

The Legend of the Bird Shem Tov

Posted on September 16, 2012 by Derek Kwait

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My friend Simcha and I wrote this story together while bunkmates at the Ivy League Torah Study Experience in the summer of 2010. I shared it at the Tisch during the Shabbaton this weekend, and now thought I’d share it with you. Enjoy.

The Legend of the Bird Shem Tov
Yehosh Mohsh & Simcha

In a village in country far away, there was a tiny Jewish community nestled in the heart of the jungle. The head of this small community was a wise old sage named Rabbi Zev, who led the community in peace. He shared with them words of Torah that were sweet to the villagers as the fruit of the mango trees that grew all around them.

But one day the old king died and his wicked son took his place. This new wicked king saw how prosperous the Jewish community was in both spiritual and material wealth, and his heart grew filled with anger, for he knew he could not buy what they had even with all the treasure in his vaults. So he began to plot and conspire against them.

He decided to send thieves to steal their money. The villagers, who were peaceful, were not prepared and could not fight back, so when the thieves came, there was nothing they could do: the money was stolen. When the thieves returned with the money, the king smiled widely. “That solves that problem,” he laughed.
The villages were devastated. They ran to Rabbi Zev.

“Rabbi! Rabbi! What should we do?” the Jews said. “They stole all our money!”

The wise old rabbi stroked his beard and pondered. “I’m sorry I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “But I know this much: that if we keep studying Torah and doing mitzvot with joy, and trust in HaShem, then things will be ok.” The rabbi then threw himself into his work twice as hard as before: he prayed with more kavana, gave more money to tzedaka, was even kinder to strangers, and, most of all, he learned even more Torah, and taught it with even greater passion than he ever had before. Inspired by his example the villagers did the same, and worked harder at their professions, too. It wasn’t easy, but within a year, with the grace of HaShem, the villagers had twice the money they did before the robbery.

The wicked king saw the Jews’ resilience and was enraged. “This time I’ll hit them where it hurts!” he said. “I’ll take their food away!” And with that decree, he sent soldiers to burn down all their crops. The soldiers were ruthless; not a grain was left behind.

The villagers were devastated, so they ran to Rabbi Zev.

“Rabbi! Rabbi! What should we do?” the Jews said. “They burned down all our crops!”

The wise old rabbi stroked his beard and pondered. “I’m sorry I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. But I know this much: that if we keep studying Torah and doing mitzvot with even greater joy, and trust in HaShem, then things will be ok. Now the rabbi threw himself into his work three times as hard as before: he prayed with even more kavana, gave even more money to tzedaka, was even kinder to strangers, and, most of all, he learned even more Torah, and taught it with an even greater passion than ever before. Inspired by his example the villagers again did the same, and worked even harder at their professions, too. It wasn’t easy, but within a year, with the grace of HaShem, the villagers had twice the crops they did before the arson.

The wicked king once again saw the Jew’s resilience and was furious. “What is their secret?” he demanded to know. Just then, one of the king’s most trusted servants nervously approached him. “Your Majesty,” he said, trembling, “I believe I know the secret to their success.”

“TELL ME AT ONCE!” the king demanded.

“It seems, Your Highness, that every time you try to ruin the Jews, they turn to their Rabbi, a certain Rabbi Zev. He is the center of their strength. If you could somehow remove him, the community would be crippled.”

“Excellent! Arrest him! Then burn his books for good measure!”

And so the king sent out his most powerful agents to the Jewish village in the heart of the night to go to Rabbi Zev’s house. They kidnapped him and threw him in a dark dungeon with only a tiny window near the ceiling for light and air, then burned all his books all night, making a flame like a yartzheit candle that burned hot and bright throughout that cold, cold night.

When the villagers woke up that morning, they knew something was amiss—they could hear the birds singing but they could not hear the soulful sounds of Rabbi Zev singing in the mikveh. The Jews frantically searched everywhere for him. They looked all the places a rabbi would typically be: he was not in his study, he was not at the shul, he was not even making cholent! They began to panic.

“This has to be the work of that wicked king!” they wailed in distress. “What will we do without our Rav?!”

In prison Rabbi Zev was equally distraught. “Who’s going to inspire the villagers and teach them Torah!” he bemoaned.

The king’s agents went to the village and to the prison to watch the Jews’ agony and report back. When their lord heard of their misery, he was elated. “This is beautiful!” he exclaimed. “Without their precious rabbi, the community will fall apart and no one will be happier or more prosperous than I in the entire kingdom! Now I will be the one to whom the people look to for prosperity.”

And indeed, at first, it would appear that this was the case. The days became long for the Jews, and they went into a state of mourning, for not knowing what became of their beloved teacher and not having his wisdom and love to nurture them throughout their days. They had no one to lead them and guide them through difficult times, or to answer difficult questions. On Shabbat, no one could read from the Torah during the services or inspire them with its words afterwards; but worst of all was simply not seeing his warm smile that radiated God’s love to them like the midday sun, letting them know no matter how bad things seemed, everything would be alright so long as they believed. Now things seemed dark as the night of Rosh Chodesh.

In his dark, cold cell, Rabbi Zev wasn’t fairing much better without his community. He was sad all the time. But he wasn’t sad because he could no longer get out to take a jog, or because the food was awful and only questionably kosher. This was a deeper sadness, a sadness that only comes upon a Jew when he is deprived of his Torah learning and his beloved community to share it with. All day long he repeated words of Torah to himself out loud so that neither he nor his community would forget it because he had great hopes of seeing and teaching them again. By night he would cry himself to sleep at the thought of what might become of the villagers if they could no longer learn Torah.

In the village, there was little laughter, little song, little cause for celebration. But as time went on, so did life. Eventually the villagers learned how to live without their rabbi and his books; after a few months, they began to adopt some of the ways of the wicked king and even seemed to be better off because of it. After all, working seven days a week earns more money than working only six, they soon discovered, not to mention how much easier it is when there’s no one breathing down your neck to be honest and fair in all your dealings; and as it turned out, non-kosher food tastes pretty good, too.

But then one night, just when the people in the village were getting ready to go to sleep, a high, shrill voice came out of the darkness starting to say, “Shema Yisrael…” before getting cut off by the screams of those who heard it. The town went into shock. Where did this voice come from? Many of those who didn’t hear it thought those who did must have gone mad and demanded they be locked up. But before they could take any action, the next night, while the town was still in heated debate, the voice came again, this time beginning, “Where are you?…” before getting cut off yet again by the villagers’ screams.

The village was split between those who thought there was a voice and those who didn’t. All day long they bickered;, Rabbi Zev, feeling their pain from so far away, could not sleep, could not even eat his soul was so distressed. Eventually, the villagers decided the only way to know the truth would be to stay out at night towards the edge of town where those who heard the voice lived and see for themselves. Night fell and they heard nothing. Hours past, still nothing. Then, right around midnight, a voice said “Jacob lived…” before being cut off by screams.

The next morning, things were different in the village. Everyone had heard the voice now and it was all anyone talked about. Some thought they were the voice of God. Others thought it was an angel, while others held it was the spirit of Rabbi Zev. Still others were sure it was an agent of the wicked king trying to get them all put in jail for studying Torah. They agreed there was only one way to find out: stakeout the spot again tonight.

That night the villagers stood perfectly still with torches and candles waiting for the voice to reappear. Then, at around midnight, a small parrot landed on a branch and said, “On three things the world stands: On Torah, on service, and on deeds of lovingkindness.”

The Jews were stupefied. This wasn’t God or an angel or Rabbi Zev or even a government agent. This was just a parrot, a bird! Yet the people remained perfectly quiet so as not to scare it away this time and kept on listening. As the night went on, the parrot spoke some of the beautiful and strangely familiar words, expounding on that first sentence and deriving powerful and deep insights from it. But after a few hours, one villager yelled out, “That’s enough! What are we sitting here listening to a bird for? This is for bird-brains!” and the parrot got frightened and flew away.

But the rest of the people were convinced—clearly something extraordinary was happening here, and God was seeing to it that they wouldn’t forget what they had learned, if only they would stop and listen.

The next morning, things were different in the Jews’ village. Businessmen behaved more honestly, non-kosher food was disposed of, construction was stopped on the statue of the king voluntarily being built in the center of town—in short, it was almost like having Rabbi Zev back. And that night, at around midnight, the whole town gathered to the spot on the edge of town with their torches and their candles, and waited in silence. Then they heard it: “”The Third Temple will only be built through deeds of ahavat chinam [unconditional love]!” the mysterious parrot was back, and this time, they stayed up and listened and were inspired until it flew away again with the dawn.

This went on for several days. Eventually, it became too much for all the Jews to stay up all night, so instead a small group was appointed each night to listen to the parrot, write down its words, then teach them to the rest the next day. The parrot revealed much wisdom and many great secrets of life to the Jews, but one thing it never answered was the one question most on everyone’s mind—where did this Bird Shem Tov, as they called it, come from?

Nobody knew. But this much is known–the Bird Shem Tov was known by more than just the Jews. Each night, as the Bird Shem Tov flew many miles towards the Jews’ village, it would repeat words of Torah as it travelled, planting ideas of holiness into the ears of the citizens of the kingdom while they slept. There was one who did not sleep, an extraordinary wise man named Noah, who would stay up to listen for that fleeting and mysterious voice of wisdom that called out each night and write down everything it said.

As the months went on, these teachings began to take root in the mind of the countrymen and made them begin to yearn for a more righteous ruler than their wicked king. Eventually, after two years, they decided they had had enough of the wicked king and they and the Jews conspired a successful plot to remove him and replace him with a just and righteous ruler of their own choosing, Noah, who based the kingdom’s new code of law on what he learned at night from the Bird Shem Tov.

Once Noah took the throne, his very first order of business was to release Rabbi Zev and throw the wicked ex-king in his old cell forever. The Jews were ecstatic when they learned of their beloved and dearly missed teacher’s release and threw a great festival from the day the decree was made until Rabbi Zev would return home from the prison three days later. But while the people were celebrating, Rabbi Zev had mixed feelings. On the one hand, he was of course thrilled to be out and allowed to go back and teach his beloved community; he fell on his knees in praise thanks to God and wept tears of joy upon hearing word of his release. But on the other hand, he was terrified at what he might find at returning to the community after two long years with no way of learning Torah. “I will have to start back at aleph,” he thought, “and who knows if they’ll even still want to listen to me. Perhaps—God forbid!–they now desire only to go in the ways of that old wicked king.”

So when the royal procession arrived to escort him back to the village with song and dance, Rabbi Zev could feel only nervousness and trepidation in his heart. “Still,” he told himself, “I must have faith in God Who has already worked great miracles for me. Just to be with them and teach them anything will be a blessing. He has clearly not abandoned us.”

You can imagine the old sage’s surprise when he arrived in the village and found, not ignorance and apathy, but rather Torah, books, great learning, and great joy.

“Praised be God!” he exclaimed. “To what do I owe this great miracle?”

The people then told him about the wonderful Bird Shem Tov. When he heard how a parrot had taught them Torah and what it had taught them, his face glowed warm and bright as the midday sun. “Why, he taught you just what I reviewed to myself in my cell each day,” he remarked. “That bird must have perched outside my window and heard my learning all day, then flew out to teach you all night. A true miracle!” Then, after stroking his beard for a few moments, he further remarked, “This just goes to show: all Torah learning, even if it’s just to yourself, has an effect on all of Creation far greater than we can ever imagine.” And with that, the rabbi ordered that a great feast be made in honor of the miracle of the Bird Shem Tov, a feast that was repeated each year on the date of Rabbi Zev’s release. And when King Noah heard of the miracle, he ordered that the feast of the Bird Shem Tov, he celebrated by the entire kingdom every year on the date of Rabbi Zev’s release.
And the Jews lived in peace from that day forward and, under Rabbi Zev’s guidance, continued to be a blessing and inspiration to everyone in the kingdom of Noah for many, many years to come.

As for the Bird Shem Tov? Nobody knows. He flew away was never seen in that country ever again, though sometimes, some say, on a clear night, if you listen carefully, you can hear a still, small voice saying, “Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokaynu Hashem Echud.”

The End.