I was in the car from the airport to my annual rabbinic conference in Colorado. Whenever I go to an event like this, I try to set an intention, a kavannah, to guide me during the experience. At the time, I was feeling a heavy preoccupation with career and personal concerns. Suddenly, an intention came to mind: “I would like to take myself more lightly.”
In a few minutes I had arrived at the hotel, and this enormous painting of a feather greeted me from behind the reception desk:
I burst into delighted laughter! Here was a visual symbol of how to take myself more lightly. I kept the image in mind throughout my retreat, and on the way home in the Denver airport, found a cart selling nature-themed jewelry, from which I selected a feather necklace. It was the perfect talisman to take with me and wear whenever I need to feel a little lighter.
I often find feathers on my walks, and have seen them as a message to be free as a bird, and also to write and be creative, since the plume reminds me of a feather pen. One day when I had been dreaming of birds and feathers, I found this feather stuck in a post in my then home in California.
Likewise, a while after that trip to Colorado, I came upon this beautiful glowing goose feather on my local lake. I enjoyed taking a photo and playing with the feather symbol.
Recently, I found this blue jay feather in the backyard of my childhood home when I was back in San Antonio to pack up some of my late mother’s things and feeling her presence in the vast spreading live oak and cooing doves. It felt like a soul talisman from her.
Yet I tended to see my interest in feathers and lightness as idiosyncratic and personal. On the surface, it had nothing to do with my Jewish tradition.
But then I remembered two ways that it does! First, when searching out the chametz, the leavened food that must be disposed of before Passover, it is traditional to sweep the dark corners of the house with a feather. My friend Rabbi Goldie Milgrom teaches that searching for the chametz (also spelled hametz) is a chance to clean out our personal baggage and the things that have weighted down our relationships with others. I also remember her teaching that we specifically use a feather to do this because we need to do our inner and interpersonal cleansing with a gentle and delicate touch, never with harshness.
An even more profound use of the feather in Jewish tradition is the practice of writing our sacred ritual texts–Torah, mezuzah and tefillin–with a feather pen. The Sofer (scribe) writes or makes corrections to a scroll using this ancient and simple technology.
The search for chametz prior to Passover and the writing of a sacred scroll of the Torah (Five Books of Moses) could be seen as two of the weightier mitzvot in the Torah.The fact that we perform them both with a light, delicate feather that once adorned a living, flying creature, seems more than a matter of ancient tradition and ritual. It guides me to take my sacred practice and my interpretations with a certain lightness and humility. Yet it also encourages me to soar to the heights in my spiritual life and my learning and teaching of Torah.
A Hassidic rebbe, Rabbi Simcha Bunim, taught that one should carry two truths simultaneously in one’s pocket: “For my sake the world was created,” and “I am but dust and ashes.” Can I balance these as simultaneous truths, that the universe unfolded for millions of years, ancestors for untold generations met…and all so that I could be here, experiencing this moment? Can I face the awesome possibility that every deed of mine makes a difference and can affect generations yet to come?
And at the same time, can I hold the truth that my life, my achievements, indeed all of civilization, are really just a passing speck of dust when compared to the vastness of time and space?
Can I remember each of these truths at those times that I get too focused on the other side of the coin? Can I appreciate that my life is a weighty, priceless Torah scroll that I am writing with the delicate and fragile quill of my day to day existence?
Or take a moment to enjoy:
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Numbers 10:35-36 is set apart in the Torah by two backwards letters (נ הפוך). Some considered it a special blessing from Moses to the people or even a separate book of the Torah. These verses are sung as part of the service when the Torah is read in synagogue. This scroll was somehow missing these two special letters and the scribe wrote them in. #torah #סופרסתם #חודשטוב #scribe #sofer #oldfashionedway #missingletters #missingpieces #featherpen #quillpen #soundon to hear the quill on the vellum parchment #swipeleft for the result,and a larger view of the partly unscrolled Torah #wellspringsofwisdom
The spirit of feathers in the delicate balancing act of life is captured in this amazing video of Miyoko Shida Rigolo’s feather dance.