When Israel arrives at Mount Sinai days before the first Shavuot, Moses ascends the mountain and receives a message from Hashem for all Israel: “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Exod 19:4). Hashem will go on to enlist Israel into faithful obedience and a role as the priestly nation among the nations, but first, before we do anything to deserve it, comes this free, bold, and intimate act of love: “I brought you to myself.” Before we take on the riches of Torah and the depths of covenant relationship with the Lord, he bears us up, lifts us out of Egypt, and sweeps us away to himself. The undeserved love of God surges throughout the entire narrative of deliverance from Egypt, and the narrative of our lives today.
Toward the end of the deliverance narrative Moses returns to the eagle-wing imagery in his final song, Ha’azinu:
The Lord’s portion is his people,
Jacob his allotted heritage.
He found him in a desert land,
and in the howling waste of the wilderness;
he encircled him, he cared for him,
he kept him as the apple of his eye.
Like an eagle that stirs up its nest,
that flutters over its young,
spreading out its wings, catching them,
bearing them on its pinions, the Lord alone guided him.
Our great medieval commentator, Rashi, explains this image of an eagle bearing its young. I don’t know whether he’s ornithologically correct, but it’s beautiful: Most birds, when it’s time to move their young from the nest, perhaps to another nest, carry them with their feet, tucked in below their bodies. They fear the eagle, which flies higher than all the birds and can swoop down upon the vulnerable fledglings from above. So the adult birds place their own bodies between the eagle and their young. “The eagle however,” says Rashi, “is afraid only of an arrow. Therefore, it carries its young on its wings, saying, ‘It is better that an arrow pierce me, rather than pierce my young.’ So too, the Holy One, blessed is he, says: ‘I carried you on eagles’ wings.’”
Hashem, Moses is telling us, not only rescued us out of Egyptian bondage, but placed himself between us and the enemy, literally, in the pillar of cloud that blocked the Egyptian onslaught at the Sea of Reeds, and throughout the journey as he “put in the midst of Israel his Holy Spirit” (Isa 63:11). So in Messiah we are not only delivered from bondage, but dwell within God’s unseen shelter through his Spirit.
As we celebrate the giving of Torah on that first Shavuot, we also celebrate the giving of the Spirit on Shavuot seven weeks and one day after the resurrection of Messiah. Both are expressions of the undeserved love of God and both are reminders that his presence remains with us to shelter us day by day.
Shavuot is June 9 – 10 this year.