“The Two Birds of Israel”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parsha, Lech Lecha, Avram (his name has not yet been changed to Avraham) receives a “calling” to go to the land of Canaan. After settling in Canaan for a while, a famine strikes and Avram goes down to Egypt–an event that is uncannily predictive of what will happen to the Jewish people in Egypt in future generations. The Egypt experience is followed by the dramatic rescue of Lot by Avram, who defeats the four most powerful Kings of the time. At the battle’s conclusion Avram encounters the monotheistic king, Malkitzedek, and G-d promises Avram that his heirs will inherit the land of Canaan. The parasha continues with Hagar becoming a “surrogate mother” for Avram’s wife Sarai, Yishmael is born, and concludes with the covenant of the Brit, the mitzvah of circumcision.

After G-d promises Avram that his heirs will inherit the land, the Torah tells of the very strange encounter that Avram has with G-d, known in Hebrew as Brit bain Hab’tarim, the Covenant between the Pieces. G-d had just taken Avram outside and instructed Avram to look at the stars, and asked him if he can count them. “That’s the number that your children will be,” G-d tells Avram, “They will be as numerous as the stars of the sky that they cannot be counted.” Avram believes in G-d, and G-d considers his faithfulness as righteousness on Avram’s part.

On the heels of Avram’s confirmation of faith, he uncharacteristically asks G-d, “How do I know that I’m really going to inherit this land?” The Al-mighty’s reply is indeed strange: “K’cha lee egla m’shuleshet,” take for Me a 3-year-old heifer (an alternate interpretation is 3 heifers), “V’ez m’shuleshet,” and take a 3-year-old goat (or 3 goats), v’ayil m’shulash,” and a 3-year-old ram (or 3 rams), “v’tor, v’gozal,” and also take 2 birds–a turtledove and a young pigeon. G-d then instructs Avram to split all the animals in half, placing one half opposite the other half.

Suddenly, birds of prey descend, and Avram chases them away. Avram then falls into a deep sleep and G-d tells him: You shall surely know that your children will be exiled. They will be enslaved and persecuted for 400 years. I will ultimately judge the people who will enslave you, and eventually your descendants will leave with great wealth. You, Avram, will die in peace, and the 4th generation will return to this land complete, and will inherit the land. The sun quickly sets, a deep cloud forms, and a great fire passes through each side of the altar, through the split animals. G-d confirms the covenant, reiterating that Avram’s children will surely inherit the land.

Any way you look at it, this scene is eerie and thoroughly esoteric. The Rabbi’s, however, try to make meaning of the event by interpreting the heavy symbolism.

The animals, the heifer, goat and ram, say the rabbis, represent the nations of the world who wish to destroy the Jewish people. On the other hand, the birds, the turtledove and the young pigeon, symbolize the Jews. The animals are split in half, indicating that those nations that attack Israel will be destroyed, but the birds, the turtledove and the pigeon, are not cut. Scripture says: “V’et ha’tzipor lo batar,” which literally means and the “bird” he does not cut. Notice that scripture refers to both birds in the singular, as “bird.”

According to tradition, the birds are not cut because they represent the People of Israel. In the book of Song of Songs 2:14 it says, “Yonati b’chagvey haselah,” my little dove is in the cracks, in the slits of the rock. The Jewish people are protected by G-d. Rashi, quoting the Rabbis, gives the verse even greater import. “Remez sheh’yee’yu Yisrael ka’ya’mim l’olam,” the reason that these birds are not sliced in half, is because the Jewish people will endure forever.

In these dangerous and tenuous times, we are often fearful that our People will be undone, but, in truth, we need not fear, because of the eternal covenant. Unfortunately, most Jews are unaware of this promise, or choose to ignore it. Yet it is most critical that the Jewish people recognize that we have this special covenant with the Al-mighty, a covenant which guarantees that our people will endure forever. Try as they may, our enemies will not succeed in destroying us.

This wonderful guarantee is indeed comforting. Yet the Torah portion remains confounding. Why are the two birds referred to in the text as a single “bird”? And why are two birds necessary to symbolize the Jewish people? We are one people, not two. Why the distinction between “tor,” a mature turtledove, and “gozal,” a young pigeon?

I believe that the Torah portion teaches that the Jewish people is essentially composed of a duality, in the form of two types of Jews. There are “mature” Jews, those who have had the good fortune of receiving an intensive Jewish education and who hail from observant homes. These “traditional” Jews have experienced Shabbat, observed kosher diets, and have mastered all the basic fundamentals of Judaism. These “mature” Jews have the tremendous advantage of being knowledgeable and well-informed about their Judaism.

There are, however, in every generation, other Jews, who are the equivalent to the gozals, young, inchoate birds who, often through no fault of their own, have never had the opportunity to explore their Judaism intensively and gain an appreciation of the revolutionary concepts to be found in our faith.

By referring to the Jewish people as a single “bird,” the Torah tells us that the two birds are really one bird. While the Jewish people cannot exist without the mature, knowledgeable Jews, they also cannot survive without those Jews who come to Judaism late in life. These are the Jews who, because they are so excited about their Judaism, continually enrich and invigorate our community with their vibrancy, their dynamism, and their wholesome views and opinions. When these two components, the two birds, are united, they become a single unit, one very powerful creature that can soar mightily and reach unfathomable heights.

I believe that is what the Covenant between the Pieces, the covenant between the Jewish people and G-d, is all about. If our People work together, we can achieve the impossible.

May you be blessed.