The first time I saw it, I knew it was a duck I’d never seen, but I couldn’t get a clear enough look to be able to acurately compare it to the pictures in the bird. The second time I saw it, walking beside the appropriately named Muddy River on my way to the hospital, I got a better look, but proceeded to forget to check the bird book! I saw it a third time, and that very day, I opened up the Mass Audubon Society news – and there it was! A large detailed picture of the duck I had just seen – the hooded merganser. What an amazing and wonderful name! And what a strikingly beautiful bird! (Click here to see the picture.)
The name kept rolling around in my head. Hooded merganser. Hooded merganser. In the ensuing days, this delightfully strange name added a touch of mystery and wonder to my memories of the bird with the distinctive black and white head. Now with this name, the images in my head and the memories of my experience took on more meaning. Reading beside the picture in the Audubon news, I learned that the hooded merganser is one of the birds in Massachusetts that is actually doing better as a result of changing climate and habitat conditions. Some birds, such as the eastern meadowlark, are doing worse. Others are doing better. The hooded merganser is one of them.
The stones at the top of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire are 400 million years old. Counting to just one million without stopping would take two weeks. 400 x 2 = 800; 800 weeks, more than 16 years of counting.
Forever is a very long time.
This week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, commands the lighting of clear olive oil in the Tent of Meeting, a ner tamid. Tamid means “always” in the sense of “regular” or “regularly.” The text identifies this as hukkat olam – an “eternal law” that is l’dorotam, “for all their generations.”
So many words for and ways of looking at the future – regularly, eternal, for all generations. How do we know what the future will bring?
We don’t, of course. Perhaps the hooded merganser will continue to do well and the eastern meadowlark to decline. Perhaps not. Perhaps so many other things.
Perhaps this commandment, this eternal law for all generations that is to be done regularly – lighting up the Tent of Meeting – is related to the fact that what we say and do influences how we feel. Speaking words of hate perpetuates hate. Speaking words of love and confidence and compassion perpetuates love and confidence and compassion. All the more so do our deeds perpetuate the emotions behind them.
Take for example lighting Shabbat candles every Friday evening – our home-based version of the ner tamid. Maybe we don’t feel like doing it, but the act of lighting them may influence how we feel. We are commanded to do it, even when we don’t feel like it. Regularly kindling a light with a sacred intentionality is about finding ways forward in life that help us speak about love and confidence and compassion, to help make love and confidence and compassion happen.
Or, if we pray for someone with whom we are having a difficult time, our words and thoughts can change us – they can change our feelings, which can then change our interactions, which can then engender change in the other person.
What can the hooded merganser teach us about the future?
…seeing the mystery and beauty– of the duck or the moon or the stars or a flower or a budding leaf
…letting the mystery into our hearts
…lighting a light in our hearts
…speaking the mystery
…speaking the light
…feeling the darkness sliding out our legs and toes
…regularly – tamid
…a law for all time – hukkat olam
…for all generations – l’dorotam
May we keep the light shining.
by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen