When does custom become “obligatory”? For some there is a rule:
• The first time something is done it is a “Custom”.
• The second time it is done it is considered “Tradition”.
• The third time it is done someone remembers that it was given to Moses on Sinai!
And though when it comes to Synagogue Practice the above may be true, there is an even simpler approach for how we approach the breadth and depth of our observance. Often, the tipping point is when and how we understand the meaning of the custom and how it can impact on our lives. Consider the following:
There is a custom on the Friday afternoon immediately prior to SHABBAT SHIRA (the Sabbath of Song when we read the Torah Portion describing the crossing of YAM SUF, and the jubilant song of victory and thanksgiving sung by Moses and The Children of Israel) to throw bread crumbs for the birds to eat. A waste of food? As important as saying: SHEMA YISRAEL? If I do it I hope the neighbors don’t see me! What and why is this all about? I have never heard of this before!
Though, as with much of Jewish life there are a myriad of reasons behind the “What” and “Why” of our doing, there are two, not unrelated, reasons that are especially worth considering.
1) We are taught that even as Moses and The Children of Israel sang a magnificent song of victory and thanksgiving, the birds echoed the joy with their own voices … sang along with the chorus coming from the midst of The Sea.
2) When Moses informed the people that God would provide MANA (a “bread” type substance) for them in the wilderness (enough to sustain them on their journey so they would not have to worry about their next meal), he informed them that it would fall each evening (except for SHABBAT) … each morning, Sunday through Thursday they would be able to collect according to their need, and on Friday would find enough for a double portion – enough to last through SHABBAT as well, so they would not have to go out and collect it. Well, it seems that some scoffers, who wanted to undo Moses, collected their double portion on Friday, and during the night spread it around the camp so on SHABBAT morning the people would come out and see the MANNA, consider Moses to be a liar, and refrain from following him. And, yet, as the birds saw what was happening, they swooped down and ate up all the MANNA that had been spread out so upon awakening the people would not be led astray.
And so, for both of these “moments” we put out bread crumbs as a reward and an expression of our thanks to the birds for their role in our redemption.
Hyperbole? Rabbis Gone Wild!? Or, perhaps the purpose of this custom, as well as its reasons as given above, is to invite us to color in between the seemingly black and white shades of Jewish Law.
To pause this Friday afternoon immediately before SHABBAT and put out breadcrumbs for the birds can enable us to do a number of things, not the least of which is give expression to our acknowledgement of the breadth and depth of Jewish life. It is a statement regarding how connected we should be (and how our tradition can lead to be) with this world in which we live – that it is not “only about us” … that we are (our very existence is) dependent upon how we interact with The Creation as a whole. And, it is an expression of thanksgiving for how that process of redemption started so long ago continues to unfold before us … offering us hope for embracing this world as it is supposed/destined to be.
To take a moment this Friday afternoon and pause to do something “for the birds” is hardly that at all. It is a custom, that builds on a greater tradition, that can lead us to finding our lives more fulfilling, meaningful and significant.