Sabbath candles: 4:37 p.m.
Torah readings: Exodus 18:1-20:23
Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5-6
Shabbat ends: 5:40 p.m.
Torah is poetry. Parshat Yitro contains one of the most beautiful examples of the sophisticated metaphorical language of our Torah: “You, yourselves, have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on kanfei nesharim — eagle’’ wings — and brought you to Me” [Exodus 19:4].
High artistic form allows the content to rise above simplistic decoding of its parts. If a beautiful phrase could be fully translated into simpler words there would be no reason to be cryptic in the first place. Poetry, like all art, rises above any explanation of it. And yet we need to try to understand both content and form, particularly when we are speaking of the word of God. The eagle flies higher than any bird; no one can prey on it other than man. When threatened by any predator, it can pounce, protecting the young it carries on its wings. If man tries to attack the eagle, she will take the arrow for her children.
That approach (taken by Rashi) reflects the way God did everything for us as we left Egypt, and beyond, taking care of our welfare in every way. We may sometimes feel burdened by the weightiness of life. God’s statement that He carried us on eagles’ wings is meant to help is feel less burdened as we travel through life. One of our greatest tasks in life is to learn to be grateful for God’s kindness to us, hidden in the revealed; He flies us first class, each day of our lives.
On the other hand there is a concept of Imitatio Dei, following the model of the Divine. This is expressed in the command, “VeHalachtah Be’Derachav” — “Follow in His ways.” As the Talmud [Sotah 14a] puts it, “Mah hu, af atah,” we are expected to emulate all that God does. As He is kind, compassionate, etc., so should we.
The eagle image models for us the loving and passionate way that we are to protect and provide for our loved ones. Saffron says that just as the eagle flies to the highest place in the sky where no other bird ventures, so God has taken us where no man has spiritually gone before. He separates us from other people in order for us to be differentiated from all nations and their pursuits and to be devoted only to God. This fits well with the conclusion of the verse [Ex. 19:4], in which God says, “I brought you to Me.”
This poetic phrase is joined by God saying that if we listen to His word and keep His covenant then we will be His am segulah (treasured nation). Then we are told that we are to be a mamlechet kohanim (a royalty of priests). It seems to me that in interpreting the image of eagles’ wings Rashi and Saffron each rely on a later poetic phrase. Rashi focuses on the segulah element, God treasuring us. Sforno focuses on mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh, we are separated as a nation in order to work on ourselves and constantly grow in holiness.
Saffron says that this is the reason why God carried us away from Egypt, as reflected by the metaphor of the highflying eagle. The Chidushei HaRim, the first rebbe of Ger, cites the Midrash that says that when the Jews left Egypt an antagonistic voice within Heaven came at God decrying, “These and those are both idol worshippers, why should these people be freed?” God’s answer is not revealed. We know that God was not deterred by the question and continued redeeming of the Jewish people.
The Chidushei HaRim posits that the image of the eagles’ wings suggests that God took us to a place that was safe from the question of why we deserved to be chosen. He absorbed that question for us like a parent taking the arrow for their child.
The Chidushei HaRim’s application of the eagle image to the idea of God protecting us from external antagonism is a beautiful one. And yet it does not answer the question of why we deserved to be taken out of Egypt. The approach of Saffron, I believe, addresses this remaining issue. We are separated in order to refine and purify ourselves. God saw within us, like the fire in the bush that would not burn out, undying embers of holiness that could be fanned until they flourished.
We were chosen because of what we were destined to become. It is upon us to elevate and sanctify our lives, and when we do so we answer the question raised by God’s poetically carrying us out of Egypt on eagles’ wings. This is why we are told that we, ourselves, have seen; must continue to see and learn from our having been carried to a high and separate place.
May we be so blessed.