Take a north-south European land journey and chances are good that your route will follow for a time the Rhine Valley whether by rail, road or river cruise. (Though, of late, the river option has suffered from low water levels that play havoc with the passage of vessels.) The cathedral spires and castles, the cities, gorges and valley vistas from the Hook of Holland to the Swiss Alps, only begin to describe the visual feast such a journey offers. The history that clings to this famed water course beggars human imagination.
Along its upper reaches, facing the Black Forest, sits the storied French city of Strasbourg whose pride and joy are the hundreds of storks who find haven on the pinnacles of chimneys and towers throughout the city. From the far reaches of monsoon Asia and north Africa, these distinctive white birds convene there as a kind of avian assembly, building their massive nests on the skyline of this seat of the European Parliament. There’s poetry in this resonance.
It is a story about these storks – at once elegant and ungainly – that seems apt for the strains of our time. In a certain Jewish yeshiva of Strasbourg, say the Hasidim, students had noted the almost human traits of the storks: the tenderness of enduring pairs, their care of offspring. So, they went to their rabbi asking, why was it that a creature of such striking qualities would be classified in religious law as an ‘unclean’ animal?
The rabbi’s stunning reply flies straight to the heart of the moral struggle of this, as of every preceding, generation. ‘The stork is unclean,’ he said, ‘because it cares only for its own.’