You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Ex. 19: 4-6)
The extraordinary nature of this metaphor has been noted by RASHI and others, primarily for its beauty, power, and its majesty. Yet, while we can draw inspiration from it, this behavior illustrates a relationship that is even more powerful than that of the omnipotent savior who takes the Israelites away from Egypt (and other dangers) and elevates us to be a holy nation. For like the eagle, we humans also carry our young while teaching them to fly. According to Rabbi Natan Slifkin, director of the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh, “One report of this behavior by “the golden eagle comes from Arthur Cleveland Bent, one of America’s greatest ornithologists, on the authority of Dr. L. Miller:
“The mother started from the nest in the crags and, roughly hand-ling the youngster, she allowed him to drop, I should say, about ninety feet; then she would swoop down under him, wings spread, and he would alight on her back. She would soar to the top of the range with him and repeat the process. Once perhaps she waited fifteen minutes between flights. I should say the farthest she let him fall was a hundred and fifty feet. My father and I watched him, spellbound, for over an hour.” (A. C. Bent, Bulletin of the Smithsonian Institution CLXVII , 302)
This is our God — who pushes us out of the nest into the air when we are not ready, so that we can learn to use our own wings, and who is also there to catch us so we can try again. We will fall, we must fall-and we do. It is an essential characteristic of our covenantal relationship-the Divine is pushing us so that we can expand our boundaries, challenge our limits, and learn by experience what it takes to fully be our best self in any given situation.
We can, and we do, live this every day.
To nurture my own religious practice, I have been studying with Rabbi Yael Saidoff as part of Prayer Project. One of our texts, a meditation from Rav Abraham Isaac Kook’s Orot HaKodesh, seems tailor-made for exploring the metaphor in Exodus 19:4. Its words:
Rise up, human.
Rise up, for you have tremendous strength.
You have wings of the spirit, wings of mighty eagles.
Do not deny them
Or they will deny you.
Seek them, and you will instantly find them.
We can make powerful strides by attending to our own spiritual practice. Also, by our work in the world, whatever it is. And by our relationships with others. May each and every one of us feel empowered by our covenantal relationship to the Divine to reach for growth, strength, and healing in the places and moments that matter.
Written for and presented at Shomrei Torah Synagogue in Los Angeles, California.