“The Two Birds of Israel”
(updated and revised from Lech Lecha 5763-2002)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parsha, parashat Lech Lecha, Avram (his name had not yet been changed to Avraham) receives a “calling,” (Genesis 12:1), to go to the land that G-d will show him (the land of Canaan).

After settling in Canaan for a while, a famine strikes (Genesis 12:10), 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, (Genesis 14:1-24), by Avram’s dramatic defeat of the four most powerful Kings of the time, and the rescue of Lot, Avram’s nephew, who had been captured by the kings. At the battle’s conclusion (Genesis 14:18-20), Avram encounters the monotheistic king, Malkitzedek, and G-d promises Avram, (Genesis 15:4), that his heirs will inherit the land of Canaan. The parasha continues, (Genesis 16:1-16), with Hagar becoming a “surrogate mother” for Avram’s wife, Sarai, Yishmael is born, and the parasha concludes, (Genesis 17:1-27), with the covenant of the Brit, the mitzvah of circumcision.

After G-d promises Avram that his heirs will inherit the land of Canaan, the Torah (Genesis 15:1-21), tells of the very strange encounter that Avram has with G-d, known in Hebrew as בְּרִית בֵּין הָבְּתָּרִיםBrit bain Hab’tarim, the Covenant between the Pieces. G-d takes Avram outside (Genesis 15: 5-6), and instructs Avram to look up at the stars, and asks 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 (Genesis 15:8), “How do I know that I’m really going to inherit this land?” The Al-mighty’s reply is indeed strange (Genesis 15:9-21): קְחָה לִי עֶגְלָה מְשֻׁלֶּשֶׁת, Take for Me a 3-year-old heifer, (an alternate interpretation is 3 heifers), וְעֵז מְשֻׁלֶּשֶׁת, and take a 3 year-old goat, (or 3 goats), וְאַיִל מְשֻׁלָּשׁ, and a 3 year-old ram, (or 3 rams), וְתֹר, וְגוֹזָל, 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 on an altar.

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 esoteric. The Rabbis, 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 surely be destroyed. But the birds, the turtledove and the pigeon, are not cut. Scripture, (Genesis 15:10), declares: וְאֶת הַצִּפֹּר, לֹא בָתָר, which literally means and the “bird,” he did 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 their comments to the verse in the book Song of Songs 2:14, יוֹנָתִי בְּחַגְוֵי הַסֶּלַע, my little dove is in the cracks, in the slits, of the rock, the commentators maintain that the “little Dove” refers to the People of Israel and G-d’s protective concern for them. Rashi on Genesis 15:10, quoting the Rabbis, gives the verse even greater import, noting that the reason that these birds are not sliced in half, רֶמֶז שֶׁיִּהְיוּ יִשְֹרָאֵל קַיָּמִין לְעוֹלָם, underscores the fact that 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 very special agreement 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 2 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 תֹר–“tor,” a mature turtledove, and גוֹזָל–“gozal,” a young pigeon?

I believe that the Torah portion teaches that the Jewish people is essentially 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 the kosher laws, and have mastered all the basic fundamentals of Judaism and Jewish life. 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 Jewish heritage 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 passion, 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 this 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 are invincible, and can achieve the impossible.

May you be blessed.