You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. (Exodus 19: 4-6)
The beauty, power, and majesty of this image have been noted by commentators through the ages. It is inspiring, this act of love and redemption which enables the Israelites to become a holy nation. But the most transformative aspect of this verse is how it challenges us, beyond the first intoxicating rush of escape, to strive towards a soulful union with the Divine.
The eagle carries its 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)
We humans do this, too. When we teach or guide others, at any point in our lives, it is a complex dance of nurture, pushing away, observing, and finding a fresh approach. It is how we learn to fly. So much in our tradition’s teachings compels us to do this – to expand our narrow places, and in doing so, to become fully human, able to recognize the Divine within ourselves and in others.
There is a meditation from Rav Abraham Isaac Kook’s Orot HaKodesh, which 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.
Let us rise up, and join together, so that we may bring growth and healing where it is needed.
Dedicated to those who have raised up so many, the magnificent faculty of the Academy for Jewish Religion California.