Lifting our children, as on wings of eagles

Rabbi Lori Levine

BY RABBI LORI LEVINE

In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, we encounter one of the most epic moments in the Torah.

At the foot of Mount Sinai, accompanied by thunder and lightning, the newly freed Israelites enter into a new covenant with their Redeemer. They hear the Ten Commandments, one of the most well-known texts in the Torah.

The God we meet here seems to be overwhelmingly powerful. The presence and voice of God are so intimidating that the Israelites fall trembling to the ground. Great lengths have been taken to create physical distance between God and the people in this moment.

Three days prior, Moses instructed the people to respect the boundary around the mountain, with death as the punishment for breaking it (Exodus 19:12). In this critically important moment in our people’s journey, one could argue that this strictness seems appropriate. Actively entering into a new covenant with God requires a certain level of seriousness and intensity, and even a few scary sound effects, to create the proper sense of awe and reverence. The seriousness of the moment persuaded the people to accept the commandments.  

What if God had chosen a different approach, demonstrating love and patience instead of might and awesomeness? It would have been no less powerful.

Earlier in the portion, we do see another side of God. Before the commandments are given at Mount Sinai, God reminds Moses that the redemption from Egypt came from a deep, abiding love of the people. God commands Moses to share the following message with the Israelites:

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“You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you will pay careful attention to what I say and keep my covenant, then you will be my own treasure from among all the peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you will be a kingdom of priests for me, a nation set apart.” (Exodus 19:4-6)

This image of the eagles’ wings suggests a physicality and closeness to our deliverance. The great medieval commentator Rashi reminds us of the real beauty of this metaphor based in nature:

“… as an eagle which bears its fledglings upon its wings. Scripture uses this metaphor because all other birds place their young between their feet since they are afraid of another bird that flies above them, but the eagle fears none except man –  apprehending that perhaps he may cast an arrow at it – since no bird can fly above it; therefore he places it (its young) upon its wings, saying, ‘Better that the arrow should pierce me than my young!’ ”

In this sense, Rashi is pointing out that God saved us from Egypt in a way that expresses intimate concern, a selfless love of a mother bird towards its chicks. Twentieth century philosopher Martin Buber adds: “The great eagle spreads out his wings over the nestlings, he takes up one of them, a shy or weary one, and bears it upon his pinions; until it can at length dare the flight itself and follow the father in his mounting gyrations. Here we have election, deliverance and education; all in one.”

Indeed, God’s initial actions led to the people being prepared properly for what would come next. By delivering them out of Egypt where they had been slaves for generations, God acted as a protective, loving parent, ready to do whatever they needed to do to save their vulnerable children. Later, after wandering through the wilderness, the children were more prepared to enter into a covenant, freely and with open minds and hearts. They could stand on their own two feet for this pivotal moment, even if they were afraid.

This journey from love and nurturing to challenge and truth is one that many of us have traveled. In our vulnerable younger years, we were able to survive difficult circumstances or discover freedom because we had the nurturing and love of a parent, trusted adult or concerned friend. When they lifted us up and carried us on their backs, they gave us room to breathe and thrive.

Afterward, with space to heal and to grow, we were ready to take the next steps forward and accomplish more challenges. We could be accountable for our actions, responsible for one another; equal partners in a loving covenant. We were no longer slaves, looking back. We could look toward the future and fulfill their vision for us: to be a kingdom of priests, connected to our innate holiness and the holiness of our Creator.

On that journey, perhaps we could give the protection and love we received to the next generation of eaglets. Then would we fulfill our true potential.

Rabbi Lori Levine is rabbi educator at Congregation Shaare Emeth and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.