“You have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I bare you on eagles wings, and I brought you to Me.” (Shemot – Chapter 19 Verse 4)
Rashi, in explaining the use of the eagle in our verse, says:
Scripture uses the eagle as a metaphor because all other birds place their young between their feet since they are afraid of another bird that flies above them, but the eagle fears none except man – apprehending that he may cast an arrow at it – since no bird can fly above it; therefore he places its young upon its wings, saying –‘ better that the arrow pierce me than my young’, so Hashem protected Bnei Yisrael when He came between them and the Egyptian army during the exodus from Egypt.”
The eagle, according to Rashi, is in reference to Hashem, who protects His people from oncoming danger.
Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, sees the eagle not simply as a metaphor for protection by way of defense, but as protection through offense. Essentially the protection of the eagle over it’s young according to Rashi, involves the eagle taking the intended blows in place of its young, i.e. the ‘clouds of glory’ took the full pressure of the Egyptian attacks, defending Bnei Yisrael by way of shielding them. The Ibn Ezra, on the other hand understands the eagle metaphor, as the bird who defends by frightening the attacker away – a more active form of defense.
The Seforno, however, understands the use of the eagle in a different way altogether. The eagle travels where no other bird travels; its ‘derech’ is entirely different. Similarly, when Hashem took Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt, He, in effect, introduced us to a totally different way of life. He took us from the culture of Egypt to the receiving of the Torah. In explaining the verse in this way, the Seforno has directly connected the events of the exodus from Egypt to Matan Torah, thus explaining the proximity of this verse to the events of Matan Torah. Our way is the way of the eagle, which flies high in the sky; our way is to elevate ourselves from the worldly atmosphere that surrounds us, to endeavor to reach the heavens whilst still living on earth.
This very theme is alluded to in the Ten Commandments. “Asher Bashamayim mimuul, veasher baaretz mituchut”. Literally translated this verse means ‘ That which is in the Heaven above, and that which is on the land below’. However, homiletically, Rabbi Bernstein, of blessed memory, would always explain: Regarding issues of Heaven, always aim for the top, always try to achieve more, on the other hand, regarding matters of this world, be happy with your lot.
Though Rabbeinu Bachya, essentially agrees with Rashi’s understanding of the use of the eagle, he emphasizes the love of the eagle towards his children, and consequently the love of Hashem towards Am Yisrael. The eagle shows its absolute love by placing its body in front of any danger that could fall upon his children. Similarly, the ultimate protection of Am Yisrael is of primary importance to Hashem, to the degree that His essence stands in protection over us. This can be seen to this very day. The mere fact that the Jewish people exist after so many years of exile and anti-Semitism is the truest testimony that Hashem (bichvodo uveatsmo) looks over us.
In extending the theme of the relationship between Am Yisrael and Hashem, the Chatam Sofer makes the most beautiful observation. In most parables when birds are used in connection with our people, the dove is used. However, strangely, in the verses leading up to Matan Torah, the Torah especially uses the eagle in reference to Am Yisrael.
What is so unique about the eagle, that makes it so relevant as a symbol of our people in relation to Matan Torah? The eagle has all four signs of impurity (tumah) that can be found in a bird. The Chatam Sofer concludes, that the use of the eagle in reference to Matan Torah is to indicate that even if Am Yisrael behaves in such a manner that reflects impurity on all counts, nevertheless Hashem will still bring us towards Him, as an act of the truest chesed.
However, using these words of the Chatam Sofer, I would like to suggest another possible interpretation:
There are two ways in which we can develop our relationship with Hashem. The ideal relationship is the one that is initiated by us. Through our thirst for spirituality, we strive as a people towards Hashem. Our aim is to actively embrace as many Mitzvot as are possible.
However, as we know only too well, this is not always the case. Often we are in a situation that is so dire, that Hashem cannot wait for us to awaken, He comes to us despite our lack of spirituality, otherwise we would be lost.
This was very much the situation in Egypt. The Netziv points out, that Moshe had a difficult task in Egypt, since it wasn’t only Pharaoh who needed convincing, Am Yisrael did not actually want to leave. Indeed the Meshech Chochmah at the beginning of Parashat Vaera, explains that Moshe was tongue-tied – how could he ask for freedom, if the people themselves did not believe in it. He even goes as far as to suggest that certain Jews used other Jews as slaves.
Furthermore, the Bet Halevi, in explaining the words “Lel Shimurim”, explains the phrase in the negative sense. The words do not mean that Hashem protects us on the eve of Pessach as is understood by the Ibn Ezra, but that this night has been set aside for future exiles.
The Bet Halevi explains, that we were not worthy of redemption, but had we been left in Egypt any longer, we would have totally assimilated. Thus Hashem brought us out early. Yet due to the fact that we were redeemed earlier than we were meant to have been, i.e. because of this night, there will be other exiles to complete our required years of exile. This, explains, the Bet Halevi, is the reason why Seder night, and Tisha BeAv always fall on the same night of the week. It is also why we use the egg, a sign of mourning, as a symbol on the seder plate.
Thus, even though we celebrate redemption on the first night of Pessach, at the same time, we are strongly reminded that our festival was not brought about by the initiatiative of the people, by the enthusiasm and beliefs of a people striving for truth; on the contrary, our redemption was initiated by Hashem before it was too late.
With that in mind, we may suggest that the reference to eagles wings immediately before Matan Torah acts as a reminder that we were not redeemed as doves, but as eagles, as impure beings, who G-d saved out of the goodness of His heart. We could also suggest that the eagle is mentioned in proximity to the Torah, to imply that it is through the Torah that we are able to avoid falling into the state of the eagle, falling into a reality of total impurity.
I would like to finish with the beautiful comments of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Miberditchev. The Jewish people can be compared to an eagle. The feathers of the eagle fall off at the end of each year and are replaced by new feathers, thus the name Nesher from the Hebrew ‘to fall’. Hashem gave the Jewish people the characteristic of the eagle; we have the ability to renew ourselves, to change our ways, to become better. We have the ability to put the past behind us and strive towards the truth.