Kedoshim: ‘The Robin, The Cuckoo and The Steam Engine’

wise old Long-eared Owl was giving his pupils their daily lesson, when, apparently quite without reason, one of the fledglings raised his wing and struck one of his classmates across both ear tufts.

The victim of this sudden outburst gave a loud ’00-00!’ and the teacher stopped speaking in mid-sentence.  Professor Hoot was shocked that such a thing should happen in the middle of a lesson.  He was particularly concerned that one owl should even think of striking another, and demanded an immediate explanation.

It turned out that the pupil who had been struck had previously upset the other.  Although he had apologized, the other bird had continued to bear a grudge, and had finally decided to get his revenge with a quick swipe, not caring that it was in the middle of the morning class.

Professor Hoot was most upset, and told both fledglings to remain behind after the lesson.  He also decided to teach his class one of his favourite legends, as a lesson in proper behaviour between bird and bird. Here is the story that he told.

Farmer Silverstraw was well known in Cuckoo Town for his remarkable ability to shape haystacks into enormous sculptures.  That particular year he had been asked to sculpt something special to be displayed in the town square during the summer fete, something which would attract many more people than had attended the fete in previous years.  Farmer Silverstraw had not needed to think for very long before deciding what he wanted to make.

One of the tourist attractions in Cuckoo Town was a beautiful, shiny steam engine called Stallion, which was still in use, running regularly between Cuckoo Town and Robin Village nearby.  Farmer Silverstraw had always dreamt that one day he would make a hay model of Stallion, and now seemed to be the perfect time for turning his dream into reality.  It was to be his biggest and most exciting project ever, and he set to work straight away.

Always careful to avoid bad weather in the middle of a project, Farmer Silverstraw would consult with forecasters before beginning his work, to ensure that he could expect several pleasant days out in the open field. He preferred to work outside because he felt that his haystacks should only ever be seen against open skies, even when being crafted.

Once he had been informed that no wet or blustery conditions were on their way, out came his large shears and favourite secateurs – the tools of his unusual hobby.  He marched towards the rickety wooden gate, put his right foot on the bottom cross-piece, clasped the top with both hands, and looked over at his twenty or thirty cubic haystacks to choose two which would be suitable for his latest design.

Farmer Silverstraw chose two fine haystacks and set to work without wasting a minute.  He sculpted from dawn ’til dusk for three days. When the masterpiece was finished it was moved with the use of a tractor from the centre of the field to a patch of ground beneath a large oak tree.

Here it would be protected from the worst of any wind and rain until it was to be transported to the town square shortly before the beginning of the fete.

Just a few days later a trailer arrived at Farmer Silverstraw’s farm to collect the model.  The haystacks, which formed an engine in two large pieces, were carefully dragged to the road by a tractor, then hoisted onto the long, flat trailer with a crane.  As the huge sculpture made its way through Cuckoo Town people stopped and stared in wonder.  Farmer Silverstraw’s talents had been appreciated in the town for many years, but everyone was soon to agree that the model of Stallion was his finest creation yet.

A wooden platform had been constructed in Cuckoo Square, upon which the Stallion was placed.  The fete began, and many more visitors than ever before indeed flocked to the event, largely because of the now famous haystack centre-piece.  Daily, great gawping shuffling crowds gathered around the platform to admire the model, before moving on to other attractions of the fete.

The first two days of the fete were blessed with warm, dry weather. During the night prior to the third day, however, the skies opened and a storm broke the calm.  Fierce winds and clashes of thunder accompanied bolts of lightning until shortly before sunrise.  Then, as unexpectedly as it had arrived, the storm passed on, leaving tell tale rivulets in the roads and the refreshing scent of freshly fallen rain in the air.

As a cloud passed overhead, its shadow rolled over the growing gathering of people standing by the haystack sculpture.  The spectators’ attention had been caught by some activity towards the front of the model, and as their curiosity grew so did their number.  It appeared that a bird had built its nest in the engine’s funnel overnight, and that it was now seeing to the needs of its young.  At first few people recognised the long, drawn out, warbling note the bird was producing, but all became clear when the warble changed to the more familiar soft “cuck-oo, cuck-oo”.

Cuckoo Town was so called because an unusual number of cuckoos would always fill the town during the mating season, from around mid-May every year.  (Robin Village nearby was so named for a similar reason – from late March the village would be host to many hundreds of little robins.)  The thought of both of the town’s famous symbols together, the steam engine and the cuckoo, sent a wave of excitement through the crowd.

There appeared to be some frantic flapping of wings, but it was difficult to make out exactly what was happening.  Suddenly, out of the funnel flew the large female cuckoo that had been causing such a stir.  For local people who were used to seeing this species in their neighbourhood it was easy to recognise the grey-blue head and wings and the grey stripes across the white breast.  The quickly flapping wings was also a very familiar sight.

All the flapping must have been while she was trying to get a grip on an egg which she was now lifting out of the funnel and away from the model engine altogether.  A keen birdwatcher would not normally have been at all surprised to see a cuckoo removing an egg from a nest, since it would be a regular part of the bird’s nesting habits to do so.  In setting up a new home a cuckoo will find a suitable nest belonging to another bird, remove one egg in her bill and drop it some distance away, then leave one of her own in its place.  When the young cuckoo hatches it will immediately be driven by instinct to push the other eggs or fledglings out of the nest, finally remaining alone in it.

This particular cuckoo, however, was being strangely careful with the egg she was carrying.  A small group of visitors from Robin Village had noticed with the aid of binoculars that it was a robin’s egg, white with reddish markings and not very shiny, and their binoculars enabled them to follow the cuckoo’s movements to an oak tree a short distance away.  Upon reaching the tree the cuckoo carefully inserted the egg into a cavity in the trunk, before returning to her young in the funnel of the model engine.

Several people quietly walked over to the tree to get a better look at the egg’s new resting place.  They found that it had been placed in a nest made of leaves and moss and lined with roots and hair.  Such a nest had almost certainly been made by a robin.  A moment later no doubt was left at all as a little red breast sat up straight, startled by the crunch of twigs under human feet.  Nevertheless, the mystery of the cuckoo’s peculiar behaviour remained unexplained – why should she have acted apparently against her nature, carefully returning an egg to its own nest?

Professor Hoot paused for a moment.  All the young owls were looking up at him with their wide, round eyes, anxious to hear the end of the story. He sighed deeply, then continued.

“No, humans never did find out the answer to this mystery.  They will only ever know the end of the story.  We, however, have the whole tale pecked quite clearly in bird legend, and if you remain still and quiet I shall reveal all…”  The Professor then began to fill in some details that would make everything clear.

It was only a few hours after Farmer Silverstraw had put his sculpture under that oak tree to give it a little shelter, explained the old owl, that the whole chain of events had begun.  In a dense cluster of overhanging branches there had been a small robin’s nest containing six eggs.  A large cuckoo had been watching as the mother robin had flown from the nest to find some food.  Once the robin was out of sight the cuckoo had swooped on the nest, removed one of the eggs and dropped it a few feet away.

Upon arriving home the robin found only a single fledgling cuckoo in the nest and not one of her own eggs, which had been pushed out by the baby bird as soon as it had hatched.  The mother cuckoo, who was perched proudly on a nearby branch, hopped into the nest to show the robin that she was no longer welcome there.  It was clear to the robin that she had to simply find her eggs and take them elsewhere.

Flying down from the tree the robin found that her eggs had all landed miraculously on an enormous, strangely shaped bale of hay.  The sculpture had broken the fall of the eggs and none was damaged.  Sadly, as she hopped about on the surface of the model engine the robin only found five of the six eggs that had been in the nest when she had left it.  After a long search she reluctantly gave up on finding her sixth egg since it was not long before nightfall and she still had to build a new nest in another tree.  She carefully gathered her eggs into one place then took flight to find a place where another thieving cuckoo could not so easily take up residence.

Having chosen a deep crevice in the trunk of another oak tree some distance away, the robin gathered up some leaves and moss and built a nest as quickly as she could.  Once she had lined it well with fine roots and clumps of hair she made several journeys to collect her eggs.  This location was to prove much safer, not least because there would be little room in it for a larger bird like a cuckoo.

The next morning, as the robin was out gathering food and some more materials for strengthening her new nest, she chanced upon a bird in distress.  The bird had seen a delicious caterpillar moving through the grass in the overgrown marshland on the edge of the town.  Diving too quickly and carelessly towards her prey, the bird had brushed some high grass with her wings and become entangled in a mesh of weeds.  A fierce struggle had managed to free her wings, but now one of her feet had become caught and she was being pulled into the slimy, green water.

Hastily flying to the aid of this poor bird the robin realised that it was in fact the cuckoo who had stolen her nest the previous day. Nevertheless, the robin wasted no time.  She gripped an overhanging willow branch in her beak and, flapping her wings furiously, pulled it down towards the cuckoo until it was within reach of the larger bird.  The cuckoo lunged forward and managed to catch the very tip of the branch in her bill.  She bit on it with all her might and as the robin let go the willow branch returned to its original position, pulling the cuckoo free and safely out of danger.  Each bird returned to her own nest to recover from the ordeal.

Not long afterwards the town was shaken by a terrible storm in the night.  The cuckoo was still occupying the nest she had taken from the robin, a much smaller bird, and as the tree swayed violently in the howling winds, and the structure of the little nest began to weaken, she soon realised that if she did not move elsewhere with her young they would all be homeless in the morning anyway.  This was not a time for house-hunting, for the storm was becoming more furious every minute.  However, there was one place the cuckoo had noticed lately that she thought would be quite comfortable, and even safe from the storm’s temper – the funnel of the haystack model steam engine.

With some difficulty the mother cuckoo transferred all of her six fledglings and four unhatched eggs to the funnel.  Only her determination to get her offspring to a safe place gave her enough strength to battle through the mighty winds and driving rain which continued to rage the whole night.  As she left the nest for the last time the branch on which it had been sitting creaked and snapped, narrowly missing the exhausted bird as she escaped with the last of her eggs.

In the morning the cuckoo awoke to a cockerel’s alarm call, “cock-a-doodle-doo,” at first slightly confused by the unfamiliar environment. After only a few moments she remembered everything that had happened and began to preen herself for a new day.  Then she counted her young to make sure they were all there:  one…two… three…four…five…six fledglings, and one…two…three…four…five eggs…FIVE!? There should only have been four!  She counted again but still found five,  It was quite dark inside the funnel and any light that might have reached the bottom was being blocked by the cuckoo herself.  She hopped up onto the rim around the top in order to get a better look at her eggs, and discovered that one of them did not belong to her at all.  Rather, it was a robin’s egg, which must already have been in the funnel before the cuckoo had moved in.

There was only one thing to be done.  The cuckoo immediately lowered herself back into the funnel nest in order to take hold of the robin’s egg. As she took it in her bill, however, she found that she was in a rather awkward position.  She began to panic a little, flapping her wings, warbling and cuck-ooing, until she finally managed to lift herself out.  As she emerged into the open air she saw a large gathering of people looking up at her but took no notice and flew straight in the direction of the robin’s new nest.

Upon reaching the crevice in the oak tree the cuckoo realised with pleasure that the robin was at home.  Returning this egg was the cuckoo’s way of showing her gratitude to the brave little bird for rescuing her from danger.  Had the robin not been in the nest at that moment she would probably never have known that she had the cuckoo to thank for the return of the lost egg.

“,..and that, my young pupils, is the end of the story, but what does it teach us?”

Professor Hoot steadied himself on his branch and momentarily closed one eye as he looked around his class for a response.  A young owl slowly raised his wing and, upon receiving a nod from his teacher, gave his own understanding of the story’s message.  He remarked that the robin had shown great kindness in rescuing from peril the bird who had forced her out of her home.  The professor agreed with his pupil, adding that the robin had acted with great selflessness putting her own life in danger in order to help a bird who had acted quite selfishly towards her.

“But perhaps most important,” the Professor continued, “is the speed at which the robin sprang into action, bearing no grudge against this bird who had wronged her.  No wish for revenge entered the robin’s mind, and she acted without a moment’s delay to simply help another creature whom she could not bear to see in distress.”

Before reading any further, try to find three mitzvot which are contained within Professor Hoot’s final words…

Here is the last paragraph of the story again with some words highlighted to help you:

“But perhaps most important,”  the Professor continued, “is the speed at which the robin sprang into action, bearing no grudge against this bird who had wronged her.  No wish for revenge entered the robin’s mind, and she acted without a moment’s delay to simply help another creature whom she could not bear to see in distress,”

In Vayikra 19;18 we read:  “Do not take revenge nor bear a grudge against the children of your people,” and in Vayikra 19;16:  “…Do not stand still by the blood of your neighbour,” which means ‘do not stand still without helping when your neighbour’s life is in danger,’  Since the robin did not bear a grudge in her heart she did not take revenge on the cuckoo and, in coming to the cuckoo’s rescue, was not ‘standing still by the blood of her neighbour’.

Rashi gives us very clear and detailed explanation of the pesukim (verses) we have just learnt.  On Vayikra 19;16 he comments:

“DO NOT STAND STILL BY THE BLOOD OF YOUR NEIGHBOUR – witnessing his death, when you are able to help him, for instance if he is drowning in a river or if a wild beast or a robber is attacking him,”

On 19;18 Rashi teaches us:

“DO NOT TAKE REVENGE – If one person says to another “lend me your sickle,” and the second replies “No!” and the next day the second person says to the first “lend me your hatchet,” and the first answers “I am not going to lend it to you, just as you refused to lend me your sickle!”, this is taking revenge.”

Now, what is “BEARING A GRUDGE”?  If one person says to another “Lend me your hatchet,” and the second replies “No!” and on the next day the second says to the first “Lend me your sickle,” and the other responds “Here it is, I am not like you, because you would not lend to me,” this is called “bearing a grudge”, because he keeps bad feelings in his heart, even though he does not actually avenge himself.”  (Sifra; Yoroa 23a)

We need look no further than to the end of the same pasuk for a reason for the mitzvot we have discussed:

(Vayikra 19;18)  “…You should love your fellow man as yourself.”

Rashi notes simply:  “Rabbi Akiva said:  “This is a fundamental principal of the Torah,” ” (Sifra)

© J. Richards 2004

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