Fly it Forward

For Congregation Ner Shalom, July 20, 2012

A couple months ago, at the last Music Shabbat, I was going to give a drash that had to do with birds. But then some crazy scary and tragic things started happening in this community and my ability to give a lighthearted report on the odd and unexpected role of birds in my life and imagination seemed out of place. But I figured: I’ll get back around to it some night.

Tonight will not be that night. Although birds, whose very speech is called “song,” making them a logical mascot for Music Shabbat, will in fact play a role. Because this week I learned a parable involving birds. This parable came from the writings of Glikl of Hamelin. She was a Jewish businesswoman of 17th Century Hamburg. When her husband and business partner died in the late 1680s, she began writing her memoirs, to pass on her wisdom and experiences and reflections to her dozen children. She wrote seven volumes, and we spent some time reading from the first volume at this week’s Yiddish Tish. It is very challenging material for our Yiddishists. It’s Western Yiddish of the Renaissance and doesn’t sound like how our grandmothers spoke. But it’s worth the bit struggle.

Early in the first volume she tells the story of a bird with three hatchlings, pecking for snails and insects on the seashore. The parent feels the wind pick up and sees that a dangerous storm is moving in. In fact, if they don’t fly over the water to the safety of their home now, they will all be lost. In fact they already might not make it.

But the chicks are too young to fly. So the parent grabs the first one in its talons and takes off. As they fly, the parent says to the chick, “Look what tzores I suffer and how my neshomeh, my soul, is worn down – all for you. When I am old, do you promise to care for me and support me as well as I do you?” And the chick responds, “Dear one, just bring me to the other side of this water, and I will do anything in the world that you ask of me.” Upon hearing these words, the parent bird lets go of the chick and lets it fall into the water, saying, “That’s what becomes of liars.”

Okay, I know this isn’t the cute bird story you wanted tonight. We have bird owners and bird watchers and bird appreciators here. And you didn’t anticipate helpless little chicks drowning in the waves. But it’s a fable. These are allegorical birds, not actual ones. They could be foxes or princes for that matter. So let’s stick with it and go on.

The parent goes back and picks up the second chick, and happens in all fairy tales, the second child meets the same fate as the first. I don’t even need to repeat the language as she does in the telling. Because we all know in all fairy tales with three children, the first two meet a band end and only the third succeeds. In the story, “The Story of the Eldest Princess" by A.S. Byatt, there are three princesses. One day the sky turns green over the kingdom, and the eldest princess is dispatched on a quest to determine the cause and undo it. She begins on her way, but she was a bookish princess who had read many fairy tales and knew too well that she was destined to be an unfortunate plot device leading to the ultimate success of the youngest princess. So she decided she didn’t care so much that the sky was green, and she turned off the path and made her own story.

But this is not that story. The eldest and middle birds have both now drowned in the waves. So the parent bird turns back again, nabbing the third chick. Halfway across the water it says, “My child, you see how I suffer on your behalf and how my soul is worn down in this task. When I reach my old age, will you promise to care for me like I cared for you in your youth?”

The third child of course answers differently than the first two. It says, “Dear one, what you say about having troubles and worries on my behalf is emes, it is truth. And I am bound to pay you back in equal measure if I am able, but I cannot promise it with certainly. Only one thing will I promise: that when I have children of my own, I will do for my own little chicks what you have done for me.”

The parent bird says, “You have spoken well and you are wise. I will let you live and I will bring you to the other side of the sea.”

Glikl of Hamelin goes on then to decode the parable for her children. She says that this as a fable about blood being thicker than water. About how profound and natural it is for parents to love and care for their children despite the fact that adults are rarely, in her experience, kind and loving to each other. But I think the lesson she draws could not be correct. After all, if parents so loved their children as she described, they wouldn’t drop them into the sea – not even for lying.

Maybe there's a different lesson. Maybe it’s this: you can’t treat compassion as a term of some contract. If I do X for you, please love me. No, when you act compassionately, you do it without the expectation that the object of your compassion will be compassionate back. Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t. But maybe you can expect something: that your kindness will give birth to other, further kindnesses. That kindness multiplies and, even if it doesn’t circle back, it rolls forward.

And I’m happy to say, that as of this week, this principle has been scientifically proven. Anna Belle spotted it right in the pages of the New York Times: a controlled study about the operation of compassion.

The news is that feeling compassion – wait for it – makes one more compassionate. I know that sounds tautological, but hang in there. Here’s how the experiment went. They got a group of people into a room to work individually on some math problems. These people would each be paid for the number of problems they solved. One group member – a ringer – visibly cheats to get more money. He’s not taking the money out of the hands of other participants; he’s just getting more than they are by sneaky means that they are aware of. In the next experiment, the group members have to pour and serve each other drinks of hot sauce. And guess what, they all give the cheater a whole lot more hot sauce.

But then in a rerun of the experiment using different people, just before the hot sauce bit, another ringer bursts into tears saying that she’d recently lost a parent and asking to be excused. So guess what? After seeing her tears, the others participants do not give extra hot sauce to the ringer who had cheated. Despite their earlier anger, they now mete out the hot sauce compassionately.

This is empirical proof of what the Kabbalists have told us for generations. If you are embodying gevurah – rigidness or harshness or anger, and you add to it a dollop of chesed, or compassion, and you stir it up, you end up with tiferet, the cosmological concoction that is the source of rachamim, or mercy. In other words: experience compassion, and your anger will turn to mercy, to rachmones. 

The birds and the scientists are saying the same thing: that people do, in fact, pay it forward. Your compassion has ripples. It produces more compassion.

And so when we are discouraged, when buses bombed in Bulgaria and theaters shot up in Colorado make us feel like there is just no hope for humanity, no hope for this sorry, confused, complicated species of ours, our response cannot be a further hardening of our hearts, no matter how attractive that option might seem. More and more, every day it becomes our job to release compassion into this world; to act consistently, or as consistently as we’re able, in merciful ways. It’s not just religion anymore. It’s science.

Tonight is Rosh Chodesh Av, the beginning of our month of remembering our destructions: the leveling of the Temple in Jerusalem; the Crusades; the expulsion from Spain; even the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto. These are all events we remember in the month of Av. Low points in Jewish history; low points in human history.

And yet there is another learning from Glikl’s birds: that while we must honor our past if we at all can, our duty is to the future; our debt to the past is paid out to the future. We redeem the tragedies of our history not by hardening our hearts, not by trying to undo; but by winging forward, whispering more and more compassion into this world.