The bright yellow bird caught my eye as I bicycled along. It was lying by the side of the road, dead. I pedaled past, but my heart stayed with the bird. I stopped, got off my bike, and walked back. The colorful bird was dead, but it had touched my heart. I needed to honor it, to take a moment to “turn aside” (Ex. 3.3) and look at it. I needed to acknowledge as something out of the ordinary this bird that I had never seen before.

For a number of months during the past year, I had seen one after another of unusual or uncommon birds, or common birds in unusual places, and each and every one of them had touched me somewhere deep inside. The sudden flash of bright blue of an indigo bunting, the appearance of an evening grosbeak outside my window, the stately posture of a blue heron at the edge of the Muddy River in the heart of the Boston medical area – these and many other birds had helped me open my heart, they had brought a touch of the Divine into the depths of my soul. I had started calling birds angels.

Angels have been a part of Jewish tradition since Biblical times. Angels can be considered the personification of the Divine Will [1]. Our task in life is to let goodness, to let the Divine into our hearts, and walking with the ministering angels – like those we sing about as we welcome the Sabbath – can help bring goodness and the Divine into our lives. Each new angel takes us one more step toward goodness, and then – like a quick-winged bird – it disappears. [2]

Each of the birds I saw flitted into my sphere of vision, and my life, and then flitted out again. Each was alive – G!d’s creation in full living color, darting from here to there, in and out of my life, bringing deep into my heart a bit of G!d’s powerful creative energy and the gift to love and to live. The archangel Gabriel “exhorts us to ‘stand up and live,’” and so, too, did each of these birds. [3]

But those birds had been alive. This one was not. It was dead.

Just as we honor our own dead, I felt a need to honor this bird that was dead.

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar, G!d instructs Moses to count the people. (Num. 1:1-2) The medieval commentator Rashi says that the census-taking did not occur just once, but that G!d “counts [the Israelites] all the time;” he counts them because their numbers keep changing; he counts them “because they are precious.”

G!d counted the Israelites, and we count birds. The Great Backyard Bird Count takes place in February. The Christmas Bird Count runs from mid-December to early January. Local bird counts happen on other dates. We count birds all the time. Their numbers keep changing. And birds are precious.

How do I understand my experience of the dead yellow bird by the side of the road? Angels disappear. I can see this bird in many ways, but to allow it, even in death, to be an angel and to continue to bring goodness into my life, I must make the decision in my heart to see it as goodness, even though it is no longer alive.

And so it was that I stopped. I let the bright yellow features of this bird enter my heart and my soul. I gently pushed the bird away from the road and into the spring grasses. I trust that while it was alive, its flash of yellow brought Divine goodness into someone’s heart. I trust that it was an angel when it was alive. I trust, too, that even if no human eyes ever saw it while it was alive, it nevertheless brought meaning to the universe, for this bright colorful warbler – like every other bird of any color, like every panda bear, elephant, and giraffe, like every mosquito, fly, and worm, like every ameba, alga, and virus, like every single thing in the natural world, is part of sacred creation and is holy. And so I stopped, I thought of angels, and I was touched and strengthened.

I rode by the same spot again the next day. Whether due to my declining vision, the nature of angels, or the cyclical nature of the web of life, I did not see the yellow bird. But it is not gone. I feel it still in my heart. It, too, was an angel.

Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

[1]A Gathering of Angels, by Morris B. Margolies, p. 136.
[2] Ibid.. p. 135.
[3] Ibid., p. 90-91.