The Conference of the Birds
Apr 4th, 2012 by Rabbi Simcha Weinberg in Holidays
In the 12th Century poem, The Conference of the Birds, the birds of the world gather to decide who is to be their king, as they have none. The hoopoe, the wisest of them all, suggests that they should find the legendary Simorgh, a mythical Persian bird roughly equivalent to the Western phoenix. The hoopoe leads the birds, each of whom represent a human fault which prevents man from attaining enlightenment. When the group of thirty birds finally reach the dwelling place of the Simorgh, all they find is a lake in which they see their own reflection.
The story recounts the longing of a group of birds who desire to know the great Simorgh, and who, under the guidance of a leader bird, start their journey toward the land of Simorgh. One by one, they drop out of the journey, each offering an excuse and unable to endure the journey. Each bird has a special significance, and a corresponding didactic fault. The guiding bird is the hoopoe, while the nightingale symbolizes the lover. The parrot is seeking the fountain of immortality, not God and the peacock symbolizes the “fallen soul” who is in alliance with Satan. The thirty birds seeking the Simorgh realize that Simorgh is nothing more than their transcendent totality.
We have a similar story in the Book of Judges, when Yotam, the only surviving child of Gideon, responds to the people who have chosen to follow Avimelech:
“When Yotam was told about this, he climbed up on the top of Mount Gerizim and shouted to them, ‘Listen to me, citizens of Shechem, so that God may listen to you:
‘One day the trees went out to anoint a king for themselves. They said to the olive tree, ‘Be our king.’
‘But the olive tree answered, ‘Should I give up my oil, by which both gods and humans are honored, to hold sway over the trees?’
‘Next, the trees said to the fig tree, ‘Come and be our king.’
‘But the fig tree replied, ‘Should I give up my fruit, so good and sweet, to hold sway over the trees?’
‘Then the trees said to the vine, ‘Come and be our king.’
‘But the vine answered, ‘Should I give up my wine, which cheers both gods and humans, to hold sway over the trees?’
‘Finally all the trees said to the thornbush, ‘Come and be our king.’
‘The thornbush said to the trees, ‘If you really want to anoint me king over you, come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, then let fire come out of the thornbush and consume the cedars of Lebanon!’ (Judges 9:7-15).”
Yotam sends a message to Avimelech’s followers, and to us; we lose ourselves when we search for that one person who will take care of everything, who will save us, guide us, and lead us to freedom. It is not the one person, but, to “see their own reflection,” and to realize that what we seek, “is nothing more than their transcendent totality,” what we have when we soar together at the Seder, challenging each other, arguing about ideas that matter to us, questioning God’s role in history and the definition of freedom.
No, Moshe does not directly appear in the Haggadah, because it is not a story about him, but about us.
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