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Parashat Yitro D'var Torah by Rabbi Rena Arshinoff

22/02/2017 12:57:12 PM


Darchei Noam Dvar Torah February 18, 2017

Rabbi Rena Arshinoff

Parashat Yitro

Last month, I observed yarhrzeit for my mother z”l who died 14 years ago. I found myself reflecting on her and our relationship. My mother was loving, but quite demanding of my attention and we sometimes struggled to find an agreeable understanding of how often calling her during the day would be reasonable. I felt that three times was rather excessive especially when it could not be too early or too late or during mealtime. And I did not appreciate her telling me “do it for me”. I usually found myself doing what she wanted but was firm about ensuring that it sometimes would work in my favour and she had to adapt a bit; and I admit I sometimes felt some irritation because of her demands. Relationships as we know are complex. When people come together in a connection of any type, we bring ourselves along with all our history, personalities, attributes, and quirks. And relationships with our parents can be extremely complicated.

Parashat Yitro has many very significant components, Revelation of course being the climax and with its many events, this parasha pays substantial attention to parents in both obvious and subtle ways. We meet Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law who advises him wisely about how to avoid wearing out from the demands of so many people and Moses respectfully heeds his advice. In fact, their relationship is portrayed as one of prime importance – in the 24 verses that tell this story, Yitro is referred to as  “father-in-law” 11 times. God speaks with Moses and tells him that the Israelites will be am segulah, a treasured people to God and to instruct them on how to prepare for receiving Torah, which will include the Decalogue – the Ten Commandments. Moses respectfully summons the elders who represent the people as well as wisdom and authority. The people gather at the base of Mount Sinai and Moses ascends the mountain to receive the Decalogue and all the people experience Revelation, the manifestation of God to humankind; they receive Torah. But before that happens, God tells Moses to say to the people:

Exodus 19:4


“You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to me”.

This verse might be easily skimmed over; we have already read several times in the last parasha of what God did for us – bringing us out of mitzrayim; it is repeated numerous times in Torah. But here this time, we encounter the metaphor of nesher the eagle.

So here is a huge throng of Hebrews, having crossed the Sea of Reeds, entering into a new life, being re-born almost, as free people whatever that means to them, not knowing who they are, where they are, or where they will go. They have a need to be dependent for such guidance. God tells Moses to say to the people: I bore you on eagles’ wings…. Judaism invites us to question the text and so it invites the question: What is the significance of the eagle nesher as the metaphor?

Some Information About Eagles

  • Strong eyes – see up to 3 and ½ times better than a person with perfect vision
  • Large sturdy bills
  • Powerful talons
  • Builds big nest high on a cliff in a remote place or very high (50-150 feet) in a tree
  • Nest built of sticks and used year after year (eyrie)
  • Mate for life and return to the same nest each season

Fascinating Parenting Habits – they parent together

The adult eagle hovers over nest demonstrating use of their powerful wings to the eaglets

Mother brings meat to the nest but rather than putting it into the babies mouth she places it a little distance from the baby to strengthen its legs and learn to eat bite size pieces. Mother sits on the edge of the nest and flaps her wings – baby copies while eating so strengthens its wings.  

When the times to learn to fly, when the adult pushes the eaglet out of the nest, it quickly flies down, catches the eaglet on her back, and then flies back up to the nest to put the baby back. This is repeated many times over. The parent never lets them hit bottom, but does let them fall.

When the time is ready, they take the nest apart to make it less comfortable for the eaglets knowing they will not learn to fly if they remain in a comfortable nest

Yes, fascinating – So… why the eagle?? I have to say I was surprised at the amount of commentary I found. Let’s look at just some of the abundant commentary on the metaphor of eagles.

Rashi – Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki 1040-1105

“All other birds carry their young in their talons, out of fear of a larger predator attacking them from behind and above. The eagle, however, fears no other bird, only man. For this reason it carries its young on its wings, reasoning that if it is attacked by arrows, it would suffer the injury and not the young.”

Relation to Torah: “When the Egyptians attacked the Hebrews at the Red Sea, God sent angels to situate themselves between the camp of Israel and the Egyptian camp, and the Divine clouds absorbed the missiles and arrows.”

Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir 1085-1158

Says this refers to the crossing of the Sea of Reeds: I transported you across the sea, just as eagles fly over the sea and you were not hurt [I protected you] similar to the way eagles hover over their nest to protect their young.

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin 1881-1966 (Rabbi to Chofetz Chaim Israel Meir Kagan)– refers to the lofty spiritual state achieved very quickly by the Jewish people. (He lived in Lithuania to Israel)

Aviva Zornberg, contemporary Biblical scholar – implies intimacy, protection, love, and speed

Nechama Leibowitz – she adds the word “aloft on” (high) eagles wings. This expresses the intimate relationship between the bearer and those borne, the concern and love of the benefactor for the beneficiary (of God for the people). She adds it is in the plural not singular – the flocks of eagles carrying their precious children. This implies two important points: it is not only about the magnitude of the Exodus but that many were involved in it

Sforno –Ovadian ben Jacob Sforno 1475-1150 Bologna, Italy

 “I bore you aloft on eagles’ wings” – off the beaten track as the eagle flies with its young on its back on routes not taken by other birds. This was to keep you apart from all other peoples and their preoccupations, to be Mine. (in Liebowitz, p. 301)

Rabbi Natan Slifkin - The long devotion to its young symbolizes God's deep dedication to the Jewish People.

So with their large nest that they come back to every year and mating for life, eagles offer remarkable protection and stability to their young. The eaglets grow up and become fully independent having been protected, loved, and reared by their parents to face the big world.

The eagle is considered to be the symbol of mercy in Jewish thought for a number of reasons:

  • Although a bird of prey, it is kind at heart and prefers to feed on dead animals if they can be found
  • Very gentle with their young – comes to the nest with a noisy swoosh of wings but descends slowly and gently on the edge without disturbing the young sleeping eaglets
  • Possess a combination of sensitivity and strength (that the rabbis said leads to mercy)
  • Eagle can soar – we too can soar figuratively through love and awe of God

The significance of the nesher then is in its parenting and is symbolic of the parental role of God. The metaphor of the eagle is so important in this verse that the mission to bring 50,000 Yemenite Jews in emergency airlifts from Yemen to Israel in 1949 was called “On Eagles’ Wings”. It is also known as Operation Magic Carpet.

God offers a prelude to the events before the Decalogue by describing himself as the one who took us out of Egypt – as a loving eagle who swoops up in time, who loves us without stipulation, and would rather suffer than inflict pain on us. So as we focus on the powerful image of the eagle – we turn to one of the Aseret HaDibrot, commandments of the Decalogue – the fifth commandment:

Exodus 20:12



Honour your father and your mother that you may long endure on the land Adonai is assigning to you

There is no question in any of our minds that we are to honour our parents. We received this commandment at Sinai and it is repeated again as we read in Torah that we are to honour and revere – (Exodus 20:12) in Deut 5:16 and even to revere/fear our parents – Leviticus 19:3.

We learn from the Talmud in Kiddushin 30b-31a: our Rabbis taught there are three partners in every person, the Holy One Blessed be He, the father, and the mother. When a person honours his father and his mother, the Holy One Blessed be He says “I view them as though I had dwelt among them and they had honoured Me.” By honouring our parents, we pay honour to God as the ultimate parent.

For many and hopefully for most of us, there is joy in honouring our parents.

Despite what we intuitively think, however, we are not commanded to LOVE our parents; We are commanded to honour, respect, and revere them. To honour, and to revere are big concepts with many meanings and especially complicated if love is not part of the equation. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik , the great Talmudist and American Orthodox rabbi and philosopher of the 20th century (1903-1993), distinguished between the internal and external components of this commandment. He said Halakhah does not have anything to do with the emotions of filial relationship but rather provides a framework for parents to meet the needs of their children and then the reciprocation of children to their parents when they reach a proper age to do so. But we recognize that there are emotions in our relationships with our parents – hopefully they are about love and caring but these sometimes are not part of the connection. A more concise question is: What do we owe our parents? This is a question I am often asked in my work as both a chaplain and a rabbi along with a multitude of feelings, sometimes difficult ones, adult children can experience. What does Jewish tradition say?


According to the early sages, adult children are obligated to provide food, clothing, housing, transportation, and any other services (Ta’anit 23a). This is the definition of honour; revere means not sitting/standing in a parent’s designated space or contradicting them. Rabbi Nachum Amsell says we are to dignify one’s parents because the Talmud teaches that human dignity is so great that it supersedes even a negative commandment of the Torah and Rashi adds, any Biblical prohibition (Berachot 19). So this is well and good especially when we have stability and a good relationship with our parents but when we do not have the stability that we have seen with eagles, this is not so straight forward.

There are issues in honouring our parents– these are not new problems but were addressed even by the rabbis of the Talmud, and despite the strength and devotion in Torah as illustrated by the metaphor of the eagle, there are tensions especially when the stability we learn about from the eagle is not present. It is not simple and there are some differing opinions. Let’s examine three issues:

  1. Do children have to do what their parents want? – for the most part, yes.

If the act is foolish, a child need not obey; if it will cause loss of money, no; if it is painful, demeaning, dangerous, or unhealthy

And of course, some situations tug at our heartstrings. If an ill parent wants food that the doctor advises against – a mix of responses. Some say to not listen to the parent; others disagree and say the child should listen if the food will not cause great danger – this is often confronted in palliative care when comfort measures is the phrase often used. This requires great flexibility.

  1. Mental Difficulties

How difficult it is for children to care for and honour parents who treat them with anger and resentment or who no longer recognize their children. A midrash tells us “even if one’s father’s spittle is running down his beard [meaning he is mentally disturbed according to the Talmudic definition], his child should obey him” (Kiddushin 33a). Yet the Talmud says that in some cases, such as parental abuse, one may leave one’s parents. Rabbi Kahana once asked Rabbi Yochanan for his advice in the following: if a man’s mother insults him, but his wife’s father honours him, to whom should he go? Rabbi Yochanan said he should go where he is honoured. Many centuries later, Maimonides (RAMBAM 1135-1204 Spain) used this as part of his reasoning for what he taught: “if one’s father or mother should become mentally disordered, he should try to treat them as their mental states demands, until God shows compassion towards them. If he finds, however, that he cannot endure the situation because of their extreme madness, let him leave and go away, asking others to care for them properly”– they cannot be abandoned and dignity must be ensured. This ruling by the Rambam (Maimonides) certainly helps to relieve some of the guilt children can feel, however, other rabbis disagreed saying a caveat is to always be aware that children are still obligated to care for their parents and should to the best of their ability, visit, call, reassure, and offer love.

  1. Sinful parents

Rashi (11th century France) tells us that children are exempt from honouring and caring for a parent who has sinned and is not repentant; Alfasi, a century earlier (1013-1103, Algeria), said that children are not allowed to curse or hit even a parent who is sinful and not repentant. The Talmud says that children would not be administered the usual capital punishment for this. The Rambam (Maimonides), however, said that a child is obligated to honor even a sinful parent. Isserles (1520-1572, Poland), much later, said that one may choose not to honour a sinful parent but under no circumstances can actively cause harm to the parent. It is, of course, the hope that reconciliation may be achieved between parents and children.

The verse we are focused on here offers a powerful image -  the eagle representing God as parent and our parents as representatives of God. We all want to be treated with honour and we owe that to our parents. So some days I would grit my teeth and call my mother at the times she wanted remembering the Rambam said “Whatever I want for myself, I want the same for others; whatever I do not want for myself, I do not want for others” and as Ghandi said – “we must be the change we want to see in the world.” Our decisions concerning our parents are to be made with honour and reverence.

Let us remember that our parents, as we ourselves, are only human and perhaps sometimes made some decisions that we may not have agreed with or made mistakes. At the same time, they gave us life and for that, we owe them honour even in their death. The Conservative Chumash Etz Chayim teaches that to reject one’s parents is to reject all one’s ancestors and God as the ultimate parent. As we honour our parents and through this mitzvah honour God, our tradition has taught throughout time that we are to remember that we were once carried lovingly 

– that we were each borne aloft on eagles’ wings.

Shabbat Shalom

Tue, 3 August 2021 25 Av 5781