Ha-azinu: Hovering

April 12, 2011 at 8:36 pm | Posted in Ha-azinu | Leave a comment

(This blog was first posted on September 5, 2010.)

Like an eagle He rouses His nest;

Over His fledglings He hovers.

He spreads out His wings, He takes one;

He carries it up on His wings.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:11)


… and darkness over the face of the deep, and the wind of God hovering over the face of the waters.  (Genesis/Bereishit 1:2)

rachaf = hover

This week’s Torah portion, Ha-azinu (Listen) is a poem Moses gives the Israelites to write down and make their children memorize.  Every year I feel let down when I read this poem.  It offers some lovely metaphors, but no new insights or instructions; it just doesn’t seem important enough after the build-up.

Nevertheless, this time I noticed a rare word, rachaf, that occurs both in this poem (just before Moses’ death and the end of the Torah proper) and in the beginning of Genesis/Bereishit.  In fact, these are the only two occurrences of the  verb rachaf in the piel stem, where it means “hover” instead of “tremble”.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses compares God to a nesher—an eagle or vulture—teaching its fledglings to fly.  (I generally don’t like to limit God to the third person masculine pronoun, but for the translation above “He” was the best compromise.)  The parent eagle urges the young birds to fly out of their aerie, which perches high in a tree or crag.  The adult eagle hovers close by, and if an eaglet falls, the eagle swoops under it and catches the fledgling on its own wings.

(In actuality, most eaglets learn to fly by themselves, but this type of parental rescue has been observed in our own time with golden eagles—but not with vultures.)

The Torah uses the image as a metaphor for the relationship between humans and God.  We humans are stirred, moved by ineffable longings, and we attempt to move beyond the practical, material realm.  God hovers over us protectively, and when we falter, God lifts us up.

In a few weeks, on Simchat Torah, Jewish congregations worldwide will read the last lines of Deuteronomy in their Torah scroll, then roll the scroll back to the beginning and read about the creation of the universe.  In Genesis/ Bereishit 1:2, before God even speaks light into being, the wind or spirit of God is “hovering” over the face of the waters.  It seems as though God is watching over the dark, watery deeps, waiting to see if something will rise up, evolve on its own initiative.  When nothing arises, God has to take the next step.

Thus humans are distinguished from the general mass of the universe; unlike stones or stars or even most animals, we have initiative, we attempt to make changes, and we reach toward our notions of the divine.

When we get morally confused or mentally tired, we falter and begin to fall, turning the religions we hoped were wings into weapons, and attacking each other instead of flying.  Then who, or what, will catch us and carry us back up to the light?



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