October 2, 2023 -
This Blog post on “If Not Now, When?” is excerpted from Rabbi Nosanchuk’s sermon and story at Kabbalat Shabbat Services at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple on Friday, April 10, 2015. Rabbi Nosanchuk shared these words in tribute to his rabbinical school classmate Rabbi Vicki Tuckman. We welcome you to comment below, to share this post in social media, and to raise its teachings in conversation.
I love this season of Passover… not just because of the meaning of the holiday. I love it because of the memories it evokes and the hopes that arise. I love it because it is the opening time of baseball, hopes are high, and from this precipice in April you can see summer over the shoulder of the next few weeks.
Twenty years ago I began to pack up my own belongings for the summer camp season in my role as an assistant camp director at URJ Camp Harlam in the Poconos. During the weeks before camp, I realized I was sure I would apply to rabbinical school in the fall. Since high school I had been considering whether the challenges and opportunities of the rabbinate were for me, and I had arrived at a decision. So I gave notice at camp that this would be my last summer for a while.
My process of discernment for becoming a rabbi was like me: intense, reflective, and methodical. A few months after my decision, I asked around and found out that the class of incoming likely applicants and students at the Hebrew Union College was going to include many exciting new friends, alongside people I already knew and admired.
It turned out that one of the parents at the camp I was leading, Jack Romberg, was getting ready to close a family business, and begin rabbinical school. Friends going back to NFTY, Fred Greene and Sue Shankman and Jason Rosenberg, each of whom I had known since I was fifteen, these trusting friends were going to be in my class. Michael Namath who had been one of my campers when I first a counselor, and Jill Maderer and Vicki Tuckman, two women who I had met through college programming in our movement, were applying. I was excited to begin my rabbinical studies with these friends I already admired, alongside new folks whom I would meet.
The following summer when we all went to Jerusalem together I discovered just how wide and varied were our paths to the rabbinate. I had been thinking about becoming a rabbi for over a decade by then. But I had always been under the impression that to become a rabbi you needed to receive a calling, a summons to share your spiritual gifts. I hadn’t realized that rabbis were actual human beings.
Perhaps it is because I had grown up hearing stories of the rabbis in the Talmud and in Jewish lore and literature. These guys (and they were all guys in the Talmud- none of them were named Sue or Jill or Vicki!) seemed to have gifts that made them predestined for bringing spiritual insight to their students. They always lived in villages and near kings and queens. And none of them seemed to make a living- but they nevertheless survived.
My favorite rabbi I had learned about by this time was one who lived long ago, in a little village in a faraway land, a rabbi named Zusya who wondered about the world he lived in. He noticed stones that no one else thought were special. He discovered the first spring flowers in their hiding places. He observed birds nesting way up in the mountains, where other villagers were too lazy or too busy to climb.
Rabbi Zusya, we are taught, was always asking questions. Why do things fall down instead of up? Where does the sun go when it sets? What’s beyond the moon and stars?The more Zusya asked, the more he learned. Thus, he grew wise in the ways of nature. Zusya’s neighbors would come to him for advice. If their cows refused to give milk, or their orchards failed to bear fruit, Zusya would tell them what they must do.
One of my favorite Zusya stories (The Kingdom of Singing Birds, as told by Miriam Aroner and Shelly O. Haas in their 1993 book) happened when a new king came to rule over Zusya’s country. The king’s father, the former king, and his grandfather, the old king, had collected birds from all over the world. There were cuckoos, quetzals and coots…Cockatoos, parakeets, chickadees and cranes…There were widgeons and pigeons, bluebirds and jays….and many more types of exotic birds. Each of the birds were very beautiful, but curiously, they did not sing.
This troubled the young king, for he loved birds as much for their music as for their beauty. He asked his advisors how to make them sing. “Give them treats,” said one. So the king fed his birds the juiciest berries, the crunchiest seeds, and the sweetest mountain water in the land. The birds ate and drank. But they did not sing.
“Build them a bigger, fancier house,” suggested another. So the king ordered his craftsmen to build an aviary ten times taller and twenty times wider, and to decorate it with gold and silver jewels. The birds flew higher and farther in their new home, but still they did not sing.
“Find them mates,” said a third advisor. So the king sent his bird catchers everywhere, even up into the mountains. But the new birds were as silent as the old.
“I will give a barrel of gold to anyone who can make my birds sing,” proclaimed the young ruler.
From all over the kingdom, people came to try. Magicians did tricks for the birds. Acrobats tumbled and clowns stumbled. Jugglers juggled and fiddlers fiddled. A witch even cast a spell!
But the birds remained silent.
One day, one of the palace musicians said, “I have heard that in a village near my own lives a gentle rabbi named Zusya, wise in the ways of nature. He once got a farmer’s hen to lay her eggs, after everyone else had given up. Perhaps he could get your birds to sing.” So… the king sent his servants to find Zusya and bring him to the palace.
Zusya was excited and a little scared. He had never been very far from home. What could he tell a king? Then he remembered, “Although I haven’t traveled far from my village, I’ve traveled a lot inside it. I know what I know, including a few things about nature. Perhaps there is something I am meant to teach.
So Zusya journeyed many days and nights. He followed the king’s men across rivers, through forests, and high up in the mountains. Finally they reached the palace. It was even more magnificent than Zusya had imagined. And the royal aviary! Zusya had never seen so many kinds of birds! The birds were from all over the world, and came in a rainbow of colors, but alas, not a sound uttered from their beaks. Such glorious birds, but not a chirp or a peep! Zusya took a moment and looked, really, looked at the birds before him, and he quietly reflected, and then remembered all the birds singing in his village, the ones he had encountered up in the mountains, and all along his journey the king’s palace.
He realized, there was something he must tell the king, even if it made him angry.
“Come closer, Zusya,” beckoned the king. “I have been told that you are wise. Can you make my birds sing?” “Your Majesty,” began Zusya. “You won’t like what I have to say.”
“Say it anyway,” demanded the king.
“Your Majesty, if you want your birds to sing, you must let them go free.”
“What? Free my birds? Impossible!” roared the king. “My birds are my treasure. My father, and his father, and his father’s father always kept birds.”
“And did their birds sing?” asked Zusya.
“You are king now,” said Zusya. “You must do things your way.”
“But my way is their way,” insisted the young ruler.
“Then your birds will be like theirs. Silent.”
The king yearned to hear his birds sing. But he was afraid of losing them. “But what if they all fly away?” he thought. He walked around and around the aviary, looking at his lovely, silent birds. What should he do? He opened the aviary a bit. One tiny bird flew out and perched in a tree. For the very first time the king heard it sing.
“Listen, Zusya,” he exclaimed. “Listen to that bird!” The king opened the door a little wider. A few more birds flew out and they, too, began to sing. Then the king opened the aviary all the way. When all the birds were free, the palace was filled with singing, lovelier than any music he, or his father, or his father’s father had ever heard. The king looked up at the sky, in all directions, as far as he could see. “My birds,” he cried. “My precious birds!”
The birds were precious, and so was hearing them sing and hope and renew the hearts and souls of all who heard them. Some birds flew away. And some birds stayed. And when birds in other countries heard about the king who let his birds go free, they came to settle in his kingdom. In time, there were so many birds and so much singing that the country became known as the Kingdom of Singing Birds.
The Kingdom of Singing Birds… I love that story! I love its joyous, renewing, hopeful, spring-time vision. What a fulfillment of Jewish tradition! Can you imagine? It almost takes this season of the year – when you can see spring just ahead, it seems that hikes and nature-walks and time at the side of the pool can’t be much further behind. In the spring, you begin to remember that the dominant sound in the universe- the greater noise than all the construction of mankind, is the sound of birds and winds and storms and breezes, the embracing song of nature.
In the words of the Song of Songs Chapter 2, words found at the outset of the Passover Seder and words we used to sing at friendship circles at camp: “Kumi Lach, Rayati Yafati Kumi Lach, Arise, my beloved, my fair one, and come away, for lo the winter is past. Flowers appear on the earth, and the time of singing is here. The song of the dove is heard in the land!”
I am sharing that story tonight for a special reason. Tonight and this week I am trying desperately to hold on to Zusya’s message, about letting go of things you find precious, if you want to hear their song! Reb Zusya taught the king to give freedom to those we encounter in the universe. Let them rise. Don’t hold them too close- and remember that some birds are meant to stay close and sing by you the rest of your days. But others…others will unfortunately fly away.
Tonight that message is sticking with me, remembering the beginning of my aspirations to become a rabbi, and comparing ideas with Jason and Jack, Fred and Sue, with Mike and Jill and Vicki and another 50 of us who began our studies together in Jerusalem almost two decades ago.
I am thinking of all that tonight because this past Tuesday, my classmate Rabbi Vicki Tuckman, mother of three, alongside whom I began my path to the rabbinate, died at her home, right in the midst of her life, Why? For no reason other than the curse of a senseless cancer. For these past weeks, classmates and friends have been sending and posting and lifting up prayers and pictures, memories and tributes to Vicki, and the goals she realized as a rabbi.
Yesterday as I watched her funeral in New Jersey… I remembered half my son’s life ago: when I called Vicki at Camp Harlam, where she served as director of education. I called Vicki the day after Joanie and I had dropped off our then seven-year-old son for his first time extended away from us. And I remembered Vicki’s beautiful and uniquely reassuring advice to me- a long time camper and staff member, but for the first time a nervous first-time camp parent. Vicki was my spy on my little guy, and she was a gifted teacher to him and hundreds of others, a nurturing, hopeful, radiant spirit. Vicki was, in her own special way, a Reb Zusya of sorts- because if there is one thing she stood for spiritually, it was her love of nature, of camping, of family and faith.
And tonight, for the first Shabbat in years, her spirit is freed from the body weary of cancer that has held her in. Now her beautiful soul and spirit is free to be what we remember, a free spirit, a presence of goodness and insight and blessing in her family and community’s life.
Eloheinu Velohei Avoteninu, O God of our generations, let this season of spring ahead be healing and renewing to us. Let the winter be past. And let a season ahead of adventure begin. Let the spring begin this Sabbath- a time of discovery, of observance and of a releasing of all that renews us out into the universe. Let us walk forward into a kingdom of singing birds! For thus will the words of the Psalmist (Psalm 126) rise up in the universe for all of us to know as truth: those who have sowed in tears, may they now reap, truly reap, in joy.