On Storks and Scarcity

Headshot of Rabbi Adam Greenwald
Headshot of Rabbi Adam Greenwald
Rabbi Adam Greenwald

Miller Introduction to Judaism Program
American Jewish University

Rabbi Adam Greenwald is the Director of the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University, the largest learning program for those exploring conversion to Judaism in North America. He also serves as Lecturer in Rabbinics at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. In 2016, Rabbi Greenwald received the Covenant Foundation's Pomegranate Prize in Jewish Education.

Rabbi Greenwald is the editor of On One Foot, an introduction to Judaism textbook and curriculum, in wide use across the US and Canada. He is a Fellow with the National Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL)'s "Rabbis Without Borders" initiative and speaks and teaches nationwide on issues of conversion, inclusion, and engagement of Jewish millennials.

Prior to coming to the Intro Program, he served as Revson Rabbinic Fellow at IKAR, one of America's most innovative spiritual communities. He received his BA in History from UCLA and his MA and ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in 2011. 

posted on April 2, 2013
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

In Parshat Shmini's long enumeration of the forbidden bird species, the Torah declares the stork to be unkosher. This would be an entirely unremarkable fact - who would eat a stork anyway-- if not for the strange name these birds are given in ancient Hebrew. The stork is called hasidah, coming from the word hesed, meaning compassion or kindness. We are familiar with the Torah's general prohibition on "birds of prey," but what is it about this "bird of kindness" that renders it ritually unfit?

Rashi, the medieval commentator par excellence, attempts an answer, following the commentary of the Talmud (Hullin 63a) to explain that the hasidah is so named because it takes care of other storks, even being willing to share its food with its fellows. Later commentators, however, take a different perspective and point out a flip side to this kindness - that is, the stork is ONLY willing to share with other storks. The debate is not one of ornithology; the medieval commentators likely did not spend much time observing closely the behavior of different kinds of birds. Rather, it is a moral one. Perhaps we know people who behave in this way, showing compassion toward those close to them, but unmoved by the plight of those outside of their immediate circle. Perhaps we, at times, have been those people.

David Hume, the great Scottish philosopher, noted that our sense of empathy has a narrow radius, tending to diminish quickly as we move outwards from our family to our neighbors to our society and to the broader world. And, indeed, it is proper that we take care of our loved ones and closest kin before turning our attention to caring for the world at large. As the oft quoted line from the airline safety announcements goes, we are to first put on our own oxygen masks before assisting others. This, of course, is just a paraphrase of the sage Hillel, whose most famous teaching quips: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?"

And yet, as we know the teaching did not end there. The essential corollary to Hillel's first maxim is his second: "If I am only for myself, what am I?" What, not whom. Our Tradition teaches that one who has lost the ability to feel for others has lost an essential component of their humanity. Our capacity for compassion, our willingness to recognize and respond to the suffering of those beyond our immediate line of sight is the basic stuff of morality. To be a religious person is to be called to affirm the fundamental truth that we are all the children of a single God, and that as a result we are all brothers and sisters to one another. The pain of our siblings in this human family, no matter how far flung, summons us to a familial responsibility to work for healing.

Our Tradition recognizes that we cannot solve all the world's problems, and knows that compassion fatigue is a real danger. And yet, hesed is not nearly as scarce a commodity as some might argue. We have a greater capacity for kindnessthan we imagine, our hearts are bigger than we know. As we strive to widen our circle of concern and responsibility, we build together the kind of world that the Torah describes as holy, the kind of world in which God would be proud to dwell.

Shabbat Shalom.