Might God help us learn to fly?
This Shabbat, the one between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we read Ha-azinu (Use your ears). Most of the Torah portion is a long poem predicting that even though that God brought the Israelites up from Egypt and protected them, God’s people will continue to do wrong and worship other gods. At one point, Ha-azinu compares God to an eagle teaching its fledglings to fly.
Over Its fledglings yeracheif.
It spreads out Its wings, It takes one;
It carries it up on Its wings. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:11)
yeracheif (יְרַחֵף) = it hovers like a bird. (A form of the verb rachaf, רָחַף = flutter like a bird.)
This verse may describe a parent eagle hovering nearby while its young are practicing short flights. If an eaglet falls, the parent swoops under it and catches the fledgling on its own wings. (Eaglets usually learn to fly without assistance. Yet this type of parental rescue has been observed in our own time with golden eagles.)
The verb rachaf occurs only three times in the Bible: here, in the book of Jeremiah, and in the book of Genesis. Jeremiah describes his anguish over the false prophets in Jerusalem this way:
My heart is broken inside me.
All my bones rachafu.
I have become like a drunken man,
Like a strong man who passed through wine. (Jeremiah 23:9)
rachafu (רָחֲפוּ) = they tremble, flutter.
Jeremiah uses a form2 of the verb rachaf to show that he is so overwhelmed, the bones that are normally stiff enough to hold him up are fluttering, trembling, unreliable.
But when the verb rachaf refers to God, it is in a form3 that means hovering. Near the end of the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim, God hovers like a parent ready to rescue young birds learning to fly.
In a few weeks, on Simchat Torah, Jewish congregations around the world will read the last lines of Deuteronomy, then roll the Torah scroll back to the beginning and read about the creation of the universe in Genesis/Bereishit.
In a beginning God created the heavens and the earth. But the earth was a vacancy and a void and a darkness over the face of the deep, and the wind of God merachefet over the face of the waters. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:1-2)
merachefet (מְרַחֶפֶת) = was hovering (like a bird).
Before God even speaks light into being, the wind or spirit of God is hovering over the face of the water and darkness. It seems as though God is watching, waiting to see if something will rise up, evolve on its own initiative. When nothing arises, God has to take the next step and say “Let there be light”.
In this week’s Torah portion, almost at the end of the cycle of readings, God watches over human beings like a parent bird, waiting to see if we will evolve on our own initiative. If we are like eaglets, at first we simply eat the food (or live the life) that is given to us, without questioning it. Then we experiment, like fledglings flapping from branch to branch. Finally we are roused by ineffable longings, and we attempt to fly out into the blue.
When we get morally confused or mentally tired, we falter and fall. But the Torah says God is hovering over us, and catches us briefly so we can fly again.
This description may be true for people who feel a religious impulse and reach for the divine with open hearts and minds. Their religion can help to inspire awe and gratitude, and it can catch them when they begin to fall.
But all too often, purveyors of religion lose track of where God is. All too often we humans turn our religions into weapons instead of wings. Then who, or what, will catch us and carry us back up to the light?
(An earlier version of this essay was published in September 2010.)
- nesher (נֶשֶׁר) = a general term for any eagle, vulture, or large bird of prey. In this case, the bird’s behavior indicates a golden eagle.
- The kal stem.
- The pi-el stem.