Shabbat Greetings

The next to last portion in the Book of Deuteronomy, Haazinu (Deuteronomy 32:1-52) consists of the poetic song that Moses sings to the people of Israel before he delivers his deathbed blessing. The song is rich with images that describe God’s relationship with the Jewish people, including a very evocative description of God’s tenderness: “Like an eagle who rouses his nestlings, hovering over his young, so did God spread the Divine wings and take him, and bear him along his pinions” (32:11). The midrash and commentators invoke this verse to link revelation, creation, and redemption, offering us a way of thinking about what it means for God to draw close, and how our actions might bring God closer.

The first part of the verse, “Like an eagle who rouses its nestlings,” is understood as a reference to God’s compassion for the people during the revelation at Sinai. The midrash (Sifre Deut. 314) explains that an eagle does not fly straight into its nest suddenly; first it makes its presence known to its young by flapping its wings between one nearby tree and another, so that its young will be prepared to receive it. Likewise at Sinai, God did not descend on Mount Sinai suddenly and unexpectedly. God knew that the experience at Sinai would be terrifying and awe-inspiring for the Jewish people – they would hear God through smoke and fire, and recoil from the magnitude of the experience. And so God prepared the people by arousing them gradually. The midrash adds that at Sinai, God came to Israel from four different directions so as not to concentrate all the divine power in one point and overwhelm the people. Thus the people, like the nestlings, were better prepared to receive God.

The second part of the verse, “Hovering over its young,” is understood by Rashi as a reference to the way in which the eagle does not bear down with all its weight on the nest, but rather hovers over the chicks, “touching and not touching them.” The term used to refer to this hovering, “y’rachef,” is a rare word that appears most famously at the start of the Torah, where we learn that on the first day of creation, when the world was still darkness and void, the “spirit of God hovered [m’rachefet] over the waters” (Genesis 1:2). At the beginning of time, before God separated the upper waters from the lower waters, heaven and earth were much closer together, and God’s spirit hovered over the world, not bearing down on the waters of the deep, but sheltering them gently. This midrash imagines a primordial time when God was as close to the world as possible while still remaining a separate entity.

The Tosefta (later rabbinic commentary) tells a story about the Mishnaic sage Ben Zoma, who lost his mind when he caught a glimpse of this primordial moment. As the Tosefta narrates, Ben Zoma was once walking along the way when Rabbi Yehoshua approached him. Ben Zoma ignored Rabbi Yehoshua, as if seeing right through him. Rabbi Yehoshua realized that Ben Zoma was lost in thought, and asked him what he was contemplating. Ben Zoma replied, “I was looking upon creation, and there was no space between the upper and lower waters except the width of three fingers.” Ben Zoma then quotes both the verse from Genesis about God’s spirit hovering over the waters, and the verse from our portion about the eagle hovering over its young. When Rabbi Yehoshua hears this, he realizes that Ben Zoma was so caught up in his mystical reflections that he’d lost all touch with reality, and indeed, Ben Zoma died just a few days later. Perhaps the story of Ben Zoma is meant to teach us that we are not meant to spend our days wistfully recollecting a time of God’s maximal closeness, but rather striving to interact with others in a way that brings God close again.

The final part of the verse, “So did God spread his wings and take him, and bear him along his pinions,” is read by the midrash in light of a well-known metaphor for the redemption from Egypt. The Torah teaches that following the Exodus, God reminded the people of how they had been delivered out of Egyptian bondage: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and I brought you to me.” The midrash explains that an eagle carries its young on its wings so that if any arrows are shot at it from below, they will pierce the eagle rather than its young. Likewise, when God redeemed the people of Israel, God was prepared to absorb any arrows from the enemy so that the Israelites would be safe. Elsewhere the midrash explains that when the Egyptians shot arrows at the Israelites at the Red Sea, those arrows were intercepted by the clouds of God’s glory which accompanied the people throughout the wilderness. Perhaps not surprisingly, Ibn Ezra links all these images together in noting that the cloud of God’s glory hovered over the Israelite camp like the eagle hovering over its young in our portion.

As we prepare for Shabbat and then Sukkot, may we all realize that God’s presence is with each of us and when we reach out and connect with others, we allow that presence to shine forth.