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Saturday, March 2, 2024 - 22 Adar I 5784
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Birds of Pray
by Dr. Arnie Gotfryd
"Every person has both a body and a soul. It is like a bird and its wings. Imagine if a bird were unaware that its wings enabled it to fly, they would only add an extra burden of weight. But once it flaps its wings, it lifts itself skyward. We all have wings--our soul--that can lift us as high as we need go. All we have to do is learn to use them."

The Rebbe (from Towards a Meaningful Life by Simon Jacobson) 


Birds of Pray
Whoever said that religion is for the birds did not know how right he was.
As a novice to traditional Judaism, one of the hardest things for me to come to terms with was congregational prayer. I didn't mind talking to G-d. That was cool. Very cool. I even got used to figuring out how to express myself as an individual via the standard prayer book. From time to time I even managed to make my prayer personal while participating in tightly choreographed communal services.
What was for me most daunting, however, was the timing. I don't mean battling the alarm clock or afternoon traffic to make it in time for services. True, that's always a challenge, but for me personally, there was something even tougher, especially in the early morning and especially in the spring.
Being indoors.
You see, I was a birdwatcher, and as every birdwatcher knows, the best time to watch most birds is in the morning. In fact, the more closely you adhere to the optimal schedule of Jewish devotion, the more certain you are to miss the most beautiful aspect of watching the birds, and that is.. listening to them.
Everybody knows that birds sing, and even the most denaturated urbanite knows that they sing more in the morning. But when was the last time you actually stopped in your tracks when you heard a bird sing, and watched it? When was the last time that you stood in one place and tried to count the number of different birds you could hear, and the number of different kinds of songs?
Once a songbird takes up its perch, sometime before sunrise, he can stay put for 10 or 20 minutes, repeating his unique melody, verse by verse, with little pauses between. He then flits to another perch in its territory and sings over there. Each species has its own distinct type of song, and each individual bird has his own particular style within that species. In fact it's even possible to distinguish subtle differences in the way one individual bird sings the same song from time to time.
If you live pretty much anywhere in North America, the first bird you are likely to hear before dawn is the American Robin. As soon as one starts, the next one chimes in and within minutes, the whole neighborhood is alive with song. This early bird is not out there getting the worm, although Robins are tame enough that you will find them on your lawn doing just that later on in the morning.
Next, around an hour later, you can hear the Mourning Doves and Northern Cardinals with their respective sombre coos and loud whistles. Before long all the songbirds in the neighborhood are there singing up a storm in thousand-part harmony, yet each independent, exuberant and mystical.
By the time the sun comes up there's a mighty chorus going on that peaks after awhile, then winds down. After an hour or so, the show is over and off they all go to forage and nest.
Throughout the day, a few species can be heard. These are not the early risers but the later arrivals, house sparrows and starlings, quite a few of them chattering away, none too musically, making a ruckus all day long.
As the afternoon wanes, they start singing again, this time fewer species and a much shorter song, from just before sunset to just before dark.

Now what does this have to do with a hapless baal teshuvah, a late bloomer in the Jewish garden of souls. Simple. I can't go listen to those guys anymore because that's when I've got to be in shul, i.e., synagogue, praying. The best way to describe the situation is by analogy. I'm going to run through the nature lore once again, but this time not from the aviary, but rather from a different sanctuary.
It's five in the morning and the early birds rise, coming to shul to learn Chassidus, study Zohar, say Tehillim or Psalms, before prayers start. They aren't very many but there they are, arriving on time, day after day, guarding the last watch of the night. Soon others join them, saying preliminary prayers, until right around sunrise the services start. After a while the prayers crescendo, and then wind down.
Within an hour or so, the show is over and off they all go to work and family.
Then there are some who wander in late, hang around, shmoozing about things, not davening too much, always with plenty of things to say.
As the afternoon wanes they make their way back to pray, this time not so many and not for so long.
Does this sound familiar? The similarities are striking. Sometimes I wonder if the folks who invented congregational prayer studied the birds first to see how it's done.


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