No one knows why they do it. Yet each autumn, thousands of starlings dance in the twilight above England and Scotland. The birds gather in shape-shifting flocks called murmurations, having migrated in the millions from Russia and Scandinavia to escape winter’s frigid bite. Scientists aren’t sure how they do it, either. The starlings' murmurations are manifestations of swarm intelligence, which in different contexts is practised by schools of fish, swarms of bees and colonies of ants. As far as I am aware, even complex algorithmic models haven’t yet explained the starlings’ aerobatics, which rely on the tiny birds' quicksilver reaction time of under 100 milliseconds to avoid aerial collisions—and predators—in the giant flock.
Despite their tour de force in the dusky sky, starlings have declined significantly in the UK in recent years, perhaps because of a decline in suitable nesting sites. The birds still roost in several of Britain’s rural pastures, however, settling down to sleep (and chatter) after their evening ballet.
The beginning of Bemidbar, the Book of Numbers, creates its own version of murmuration. If I were to be looking down from a hilltop at the Israelite tent encampment below – I imagine it in full biblically Hollywood glory of course – I would see the most wonderful order. The Tabernacle in the Tent of Meeting provided the central focus, the Division of Judah arranged to the East, of Ephraim to the West, to the South, Reuben and the North, Dan. Separating them from the Sacred core were the priestly clans: Moses, Aaron and his sons to the East, the Gershonites to the West, Kohathites to the South and the Merarites to the North – the clans of the Tribe of Levi.
The divisions were marked out like a city based on a grid-system. Instead of street names or numbers, each household lived beneath their standard and each clan their standard. In my moving image, the billowing white of their tents was subtlely punctuated by glimpses of colour from the fluttering emblems. When one panned down into the camp, it is easy to imagine from the Torah’s description, a people acting like a colony of ants. Each one had their set task and they went about it in an orderly manner. Like a colony of ants or partly the murmuration of starlings, their life behavioural preciseness was founded on protection and foraging for sustenance, physical or spiritual.
Yet unlike our perception of the starlings, there were certain individuals that stood out and named by the Torah. I ended our parasha this morning with one of them, Nachshon ben Amminadav, the chieftain of Judah. He has leadership yichus – family standing – as his sister, Elisheva was Aaron’s wife (Ex 6:23), his grandson was Boaz, who married Ruth and begot the line to King David (Ruth 4:20-22 and I Chron 2:10-15). Most famously, the Ancient Rabbis identified him as being the one who, “When Israel stood at the edge of the sea, each one said: ‘I will not be the first to enter…’ While they stood their deliberating, Nachshon ben Amminadav leapt first into the Sea and plunged into its waves.” (Mechilta to Ex 14:22). Individuals such as Nachshon ben Amminadav symbolise the vitality of the individual, without whom the whole would be diminished.
This long weekend tents, marquees and gazebos are being erected, BBQs lit and bunting hung, unfortunately accompanied by many umbrellas for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Most encampments will seem less orderly, rather more like pop-up shtiebels than the murmuration of the starlings or the Israelite arrangements in the wilderness. Yet they all have common purpose as Dr Rafi Zarum puts it: “ritual created to surround an idea that is embodied symbolically by a Monarch, a Cohen Gadol – a High Priest – but is essentially intangible.”
It is that essential intangible that is so easy to lose sight of – far easier to focus on a physical manifestation. In Britain, even more so in England, it is argued that we have lost sight of the core of our identity. Yet I believe that the multiplicity of different identities – defined by religion, ethnicity, culture and much more – that will all be out on the streets, in parks and recreation grounds around the UK are this weekend celebrating that essential intangible in a communal way: that of life.
The faith of Judaism and its ancient Israelite ancestors is solid around its essential intangible: the celebration of life and its contribution to eternity that for us is spiritually manifest in the Eternal God. This morning we celebrate the lives of individuals without whom our whole would be diminished and in a cosmic sense, that of eternity.
Each individual starling, the anonymous Israelite in the wilderness, every Jew, every citizen of this country and our global community: we matter. Our particular, Jewish identity gives us the opportunity to regularly celebrate that fact through our lives. May the celebrations of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee provide such an opportunity for every individual of this country, citizen, resident or refugee, to celebrate their life and part in the essential intangible of eternity. That is the essential of the symbol of the monarchy and will provide its longevity such as that of Judaism and its Israelite heritage.
God save the Queen!