Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Yitro: Eagles Wings, Consequence and Motion

"ואשא אתכם על כנפי נשרים ואביא אתכם אלי" "And how I bore you on eagle's wings." This line is provocative, asking to be felt and then understood (as TS Elliot once said of poems, that they are felt before they're understood). Here is one approach from the old school and one from the new.

G-d says that he'll carry the Jewish People on eagle's wings. The Seforno says that the meaning of the eagles’ wings is that they carry the eagle to a place where no one else can go. The concept is that G-d has taken us as His, separate and apart from all other nations and their ways. The Seforno is also consistent in his interpretation throughout this pasuk. Regarding what it was that G-d is reminding them that they’ve seen in Egypt, Seforno explains that G-d is reminding them how he entreated the Egyptians to leave their evil ways, not wanting them to die. Only because of their corrupt stubbornness did G-d G-d have to destroy them. The theme of the pasuk, according to Seforno is that there are consequences for evil behavior and that G-d expects better from us.

Aviva Zornberg explains that metaphor, in contrast to simile, provides space for interpretation. She writes that the metaphor of eagle's wings “strikes the reader with an exotic force” and at once creates a conception of “intimacy, protection, love, speed.” It is Zornberg's contention that by portraying G-d as the eagle carrying its young this pasuk suggests our lightness. The point is that, despite how we feel, our physical beings are in reality weightless. The Hebrew word for honor – kavod means weighty, and at this historic moment, as we were being uplifted and chosen by G-d, we were told not to be taken by a sense of our own grandiosity. In relation to
G-d’s greatness our delusions of grandeur are deflated, our own heaviness is put in proper, limited context.

Dr. Zornberg explains that the description of G-d carrying us on eagles’ wings creates images of carrying and being carried, old and young, strong and weak. It reminds us that as important as our past experiences make us feel, “history is driven entirely by G-d’s motion.” The reason a metaphor is employed here may be that the idea being conveyed is a hard one to accept. What Milan Kundera calls “the unbearable lightness of being” is difficult to embrace head on. We need to come to it through an image, to take it in, in a way that “the ear is capable of hearing". Have a great week.

Rabbi Neil Fleischmann

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