Friday, February 6, 2015

On the Wings of Eagles

In Exodus 19, God instructs Moses to address the Children of Israel and to say to them: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself.” (19:4). “On eagles’ wings” is a beautifully descriptive phrase, but nowhere in the Torah text concerning the exodus from Egypt is there a description of flying or eagles. So why did God choose this language?

The great biblical commentator Rashi (France 1040-1105) cites a fascinating Midrash from the Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael to explain this phrase:

Like an eagle, which carries its young on its wings - whereas all other birds place their young between their feet because they fear other birds that are flying above them. The eagle is afraid of none except humankind, who might shoot an arrow at it, because there is no other bird that flies higher than it [the eagle]. Therefore, it places [its young] on its wings, saying “Better that an arrow pierces me and not my offspring.”

In other words, the idea of bearing the Israelites on eagles’ wings is meant to reflect how God protects the Jewish people. The Midrash continues to explain how, like the eagle, God shielded His children by placing a barrier between the Israelites and the Egyptians (a column of smoke by day, a pillar of fire at night), which absorbed all of the arrows that the Egyptians shot at them. 

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