Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz – Fowl Play

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Operation Inspiration

As I walked out this morning, I noticed something odd. My shirt began turning colors. Well, not really turning colors, but it seemed to be getting darker in certain spots. The spots of darkness multiplied as I watched and suddenly I realized that I was getting colder. And wetter. Yes, I had walked out of my house into a light but steady rain and cold temperatures. My coat was in the closet upstairs and I was walking to my car for Shacharis. I didn’t have time to go back and get the coat.

I considered the fact that rain is not a fun thing to be in unless it’s a hot summer day’s sun shower or you’re from Eretz Yisrael or California where they may not get rain that often. When you’re in a place like New York, though, and it’s cold, or even if it’s just a driving rain at any time of the year, it’s not so pleasant to walk in.

That’s nothing new of course. The Kohain Gadol on Yom Kippur had to ask that the rains come even though travelers would pray for it to stay dry. I started to think about it and realized that for me at that moment the problem wasn’t that it was raining, but that I wasn’t properly prepared for the rain.

I mean, if I had been wearing a coat with a hood, or had an umbrella, or maybe even full-length rain pants and a jacket like my brother-in-law, I probably wouldn’t mind the rain. It wouldn’t make me wet or cold and it would roll off me like off the proverbial duck’s back.

I looked up the phrase and most commonly it’s associated with a person being able to turn a deaf ear to insults or hurtful comments. The idea is that if we don’t let them permeate our skin and hurt our feelings, then they are of no consequence to us. The analogy to a duck is because if you’ve ever seen a duck swimming on a pond or lake, when they duck – I mean, dip – under the water, they come up dry as if nothing happened. Ducks apparently secrete some sort of oily substance that makes their feathers water-resistant and instead of soaking them like it did my shirt, the water simply rolls off.

The message then would be that we can and should try to prepare ourselves to fend off hurtful insults and not let them make any impact. It is a tall order, of course, since we generally care what people think about us, but if we use the tools we have to prevent someone dampening our spirits by shielding ourselves with protective gear, we can move on unaffected.

But, never one to leave well enough alone, and since I still need another three hundred words or so for this column, I dug deeper. I found an amazing study that had been done at Oxford University. Now, if you’ve got a British accent, you can speak complete gibberish and Americans will nod solemnly and say, “Hmmm, he’s got a point there.” Certainly if it’s a study from a British university of the stature of Oxford, it must be meaningful even if it’s the silliest thing you’ve ever heard.

Well, this group actually studied water off a duck’s back! I mean, sort of. They were comparing duckling chicks being raised with showers or troughs to get wet in to those raised in areas where they had ponds to swim in. It seems that as long as they are able to dip their heads into water and can then spread it on their feathers, they are fine. However, ducks that only got water from feeders that they pressed with their bills and it dripped into their mouths were unable to properly keep their eyes, nostrils and feathers clean. When they were finally given access to water they could dip into, they responded with “compensatory rebound,” showing they had suffered bathing deprivation. The result of the study was that ducks needed access to more than just drinking water for their proper welfare.

This makes our lesson take on a whole new meaning. One would previously have imagined that ducks didn’t care about water. It just rolls off their backs and has no effect. But that isn’t true. As it does, it cleanses them and promotes good health. They may not need to soak and swim in a pond, but they are refreshed and maintain their well-being by being occasionally sprayed with water.

To our point of this simile referring to jibes, barbs, and insults, it would seem that the ideal is not to never feel the pain of harsh words, but to be able to take the blow and shake it off! The fact that people may say hurtful things, helps us grow and understand how not to be hurtful to others. They remind us that we can be stronger and overcome the negativity of others and this cleanses us.

Walking in shirtsleeves in clear weather doesn’t mean we’ll be able to handle the storms that must come into our lives. Being able to dress ourselves properly so the driving rain doesn’t hurt us or make us sick is a whole new level.

At the end of the day, you’ve got to ask yourself if you’re strong enough to face whatever the world can throw at you, be cleansed and then laugh at it like water off a duck’s back, or if maybe you’re just plain chicken.

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