Fowl Play? The Significance Of Birds In The Torah
Fowl Play? The Significance Of Birds In The Torah
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
This week, Rabbi Fohrman tests Imu – where do birds appear in the Torah? How do they connect to each other? Is there some sort of theme that connects the birds together? And how does any of this relate to Parshat Yitro, the parsha in which God gives the Torah to the Israelite people at Sinai?
Imu Shalev: Hello and welcome to another episode of Parsha Lab, Aleph Beta's Number 1 Podcast. It is the top of the Aleph Beta podcast charts. I am your co-host, Imu Shalev.
Rabbi Fohrman: I am Rabbi David Fohrman, your other co-host, and today we are going to be talking to you about Parshat Yitro. Guys, you should count yourselves really lucky. You're listening to our really good podcast.
Imu Shalev: It's true.
Rabbi Fohrman: We didn't force the other ones on you.
Imu Shalev: Rabbi Fohrman, Yitro was one of those obscure parshiyot, right, where there's not much going on?
Rabbi Fohrman: There isn't. There's like the 10 commandments and there's like – it feels like you really have to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find something to talk about here.
Imu Shalev: So what will we talk about, Rabbi Fohrman?
What Do Birds Symbolize in the Bible?Rabbi Fohrman: I have a question that's sort of always puzzled me. One of the things that you find throughout the Torah is you find the appearance of birds. Sometimes they appear within the context of laws and sometimes they appear within the context of metaphors and they sometimes show up in the strangest of places. I'm wondering if there's any sort of overarching master theory of birds going on in the Torah. It may be that there's completely not and we might just be crazy, but is it possible that there is some sort of theme running through birds in the Torah? For just a minute or two, I just want to play a game with you, which is let's see if we can sort of mention all the examples of birds that we remember throughout the Torah. Let's maybe play tag team over here, start with you. Give me some birds in the Torah. Go.
Connecting the Biblical References to BirdsImu Shalev: Birds in the Torah? Creation of birds. Day 4.
Rabbi Fohrman: All right. So you've got right at the beginning of creation, we have the appearance of birds, birds get created. All right. Next birds in chronological order. Birds of Noah. Noah sends out these birds, he sends out a raven, he sends out a blackbird. He also sends out a white bird, a dove. By the way, thinking about creation, Imu, back in creation, one of the first things God creates is light and darkness and we've got a light and dark bird as the world comes to kind of sunset and the world was recreated –
Imu Shalev: Oh, and the ruach Elokim is merachef.
Rabbi Fohrman: That's right. Look at that.
Imu Shalev: God himself is kind of bird-esque hovering over the deep.
Rabbi Fohrman: That is kind of of interesting. If you think about the very beginning of Genesis, you have a wind of God hovering over the waters or literally fluttering over the waters, it almost seems as if a phantom image of God as a bird. Of course, later on – and that brings us to another example of birds, Imu. Where in the Torah do we have a bird being explicitly descried as fluttering?
Imu Shalev: I think it's coming to mind. It goes alav yerachef, Haazinu or something.
Rabbi Fohrman: Exactly. In Haazinu. Like an eagle waking up his nest, upon his young little birds he is fluttering, he's taking care of them and the imagery seems to be God taking care of us and there you have God being confirmed.
Imu Shalev: I didn't even realize that. That's actually very cool. You have it's the God like bird that is hovering that mirrors the beginning of the book where the wind of God is hovering.
Interpreting the Symbolism of Birds in the BibleRabbi Fohrman: Exactly. But now think about the al gosalav yerachef, that you have the eagle hovering over its gozals. I don't know what gozals is. Is it a young eaglet; is it another kind of bird? I'm not sure. But if you think about a gozal, that type of bird, where in the Torah do we meet that kind of bird? A gozal.
Imu Shalev: Gozal, gozal, gozal. I'm assuming, is there a gozal in the bris bein habesarim?
Rabbi Fohrman: There absolutely is. Genesis, Chapter 15. Could it be that in the very end of Deuteronomy, when it says that God is like an eagle hovering over his gozals, it's referring to which gozals? The one in Chapter 15. Which is the bird that survives the splitting of corpses of the brit bein habetarim. That's that moment where Abraham splits all these corpses and there's a bird that flies free. Maybe that bird is us. Maybe that's the bird that the eagle treasures and keeps safe. It's the gozal and it's the gozal that shows up.
Imu Shalev: One second. That imagery is really powerful. I never really thought of bris bein habesarim that way. Remind me what happened there. You had three different kinds of animals. You had goat, you had cow and you had what else?
Rabbi Fohrman: Goat, cow and ram and all of those animals get split up and there's these corpses and there's blood all over the place. It's a prophetic nightmare and God talks about slavery in Egypt and then at the very end, there's this moment of, there are birds. God says there are these birds, don't touch the birds. There's a turtledove and there's a gozal, this little bird. The birds fly free and it's like God is saying there's going to be this slavery and suffering, but I'm the master bird. I'm the one who's fluttering. I'm the one who was fluttering at the beginning of the Torah; I'm the one who's fluttering at the end. I'm the eagle. Of course, where does God as eagle show up? Not just in Deuteronomy, but where do we have God as the great eagle in the sky?
Imu Shalev: I know that one. That's in our parsha.
Rabbi Fohrman: Welcome to parshat Yitro. You knew there was a reason we were talking about parshat Yitro. That's why. God comes here as an eagle, taking care of his gozal. He is the one who brought us on eagles' wings. All of these birds seem connected.
Imu Shalev: That's really interesting.
The Spiritual Meaning of Birds in the BibleRabbi Fohrman: The other question which I don't know the answer to is what does gozal mean? Does gozal just mean generic young bird? It doesn't seem to mean eaglet. Is it a different species of bird like a turtledove? Because if it is, then the gozal in the Torah are specifically not eagles, which I think is also fascinating. Because if you're an eagle, what would you take care of? You would take care of eaglets.
Imu Shalev: But you wouldn't take care of any other birds.
Rabbi Fohrman: Exactly. So God is different than birds that way. You see, a bird is normally parochial. But God has a nest and he's the great eagle in the sky. But what are the cute little birds in the nest? Other little orphan birds from different species. A turtle dove and a gozal. The eagle has adopted another species of bird that was being beaten up, that was being destroyed, and brought it into its next. The eagle, in Deuteronomy, the eagle takes care of the little birds in its nest. This other kind of bird. So there's this turtledove and there's gozal which are very different than eagles, but God 's going to take care of them anyway. God is transcendent. You can't touch Him, you can't feel Him. But that difference doesn't mean that He doesn't care about us. Despite the fact that we are flesh and blood creatures, that we are not biologically His, God still cares about us and is there for us the way an eagle would adopt another little bird and take care of it.
The Significance Behind These Biblical Bird ReferencesImu Shalev: I think what's interesting about the connections you're making, especially in the bris bein habesarim and in our parsha and in Haazinu, is that all three of those scenarios are dealing with Israel and exile and God as savior. Bris bein habesarim is talking about God 's promise to Abraham that his children are going to be strangers in a strange land and somehow, what you're suggesting is that the symbolism of the bird, is that they're going to – despite terrible pain, despite terrible suffering – the bird is some sort of symbol of deliverance. Here in our parsha, God is saying v'esa etchem al kanfei nesharim, literally talking about His delivering of them from Egypt and how he takes them out on wings of an eagle. At the end, in Haazinu, God is talking about his protection of the people of Israel and how he hovers over them and protects them. Is it talking about their stay in the desert? Is that what it is doing in Haazinu?
Rabbi Fohrman: It's not clear. It sounds like we're talking about God taking us out of Egypt and bringing us back and yes, God taking care of us in the desert. The desert there is being analogized to the wastelands of pre-creation. Just like in pre-creation, there was a wind of God hovering over the chaos, so the chaos now is u'betohu yolel yeshimom, in the howling wasteland of the desert, God was there and taking care of us.
Imu Shalev: So what's interesting here is that it's not just that there's some arbitrary birds in the Torah and are they connected? It's that these three at least, these three mentions of birds are all about deliverance. Maybe Yonah with Noach is also something to do with that, with the world had been totally wiped out and the way humanity is ushered back into its deliverance is trough a bird. But it really does seem that the birds are related to deliverance.
The Deeper Meaning of Birds in the BibleRabbi Fohrman: It's a fascinating notion. If you then extend that idea into Noah, would that give you an understanding of what those birds were doing back in Noah? In other words, could it be that when Noah was releasing those birds into the world, they were precursors of the salvation of humanity. This little boat with people who were going to be saved from destruction were about disembark. But before that, birds had to somehow be the vanguard of that deliverance. If you think about that bird coming back with the olive branch which becomes such an important symbol for us of peace and deliverance, that goes back to that bird with Noah. There is something, I think, comforting about the notion of birds. You know, when we wake up in the morning, we heard those birds tweeting, there's something that is rejuvenating just about the presence of birds in your life. I think maybe God 's tapping into that by saying that, you know, I'm the great bird in the sky and I take care of you.
Imu Shalev: That's a really powerful and resonant metaphor, especially in this week's parsha, where you have God kind of introducing Himself to the people. The way He chooses to introduce Himself is through this metaphor. I'm the God who took you out of Egypt. I brought you out on eagle's wings. I don't think He's saying that to be fancy. It's like oh, I brought you out, no I actually schlepped you on a camel. No, I brought you out on eagle's wings, exactly in line with how you're describing this metaphor, which is – think about our experience. We live in two dimensions to some extent. We walk on the surface of the earth and a bird doesn't do that. A bird gets to move in the third dimension. It flies above us and it can pluck you out of your existence. It can pluck you out of the harmful circumstance that you're in and you can't get out of. While you can only walk forward and backward, here comes this bird who lifts you out of something. To begin a relationship with God, understanding that metaphor, understanding that you may be in narrow straits, Egypt, literally meaning in narrow straits, boundaries, and God will lift you up out of there. That's a really incredible way to begin a relationship.
The Transcendent Spiritual Meaning of Biblical BirdsRabbi Fohrman: It is a beautiful way of thinking about it, especially if you think about God as transcendent. Transcendent is a very fancy word, but if you would make it more tangible, the closest thing that we have to a being that's transcendent to our world is a bird. For all of humanity, we've been mystified, as humans, by flight. Leonardo de Vinci with his flying machine. There's something about the bird being able to take flight, which is a symbol of freedom and deliverance. It's like if you could fly in a dream, that vivid image of being able to fly is one of the most powerful images of really being true. God seems to know that about us, to sort of latch on to that image and say if you want to have some understanding of who I am, this being that's so different than you, that can't touch you, that you can't touch, you can't feel, think of me as a bird. Think of me that's someone that lives and that can fly in way that you can only dream of. Think of me as – yet, despite the fact that I'm so different than you, that I can fly, I take care of despite that difference. I'm an eagle that doesn't just care about eaglets. I care about turtledoves and gozals also. You're the turtledove and the gozal and you can come into my nest.
Imu Shalev: Rabbi Fohrman, I am flying high with the height of this Torah learning.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah, I am flying high too. It's heady stuff. It's airy stuff, but it's heady stuff too. I am Rabbi David Fohrman.
Imu Shalev: And I am Imu Shalev. Thank you so much for listening to this week's episode of Parsha Lab. We're going to have more amazing Parsha Lab for you next week, but if you're still craving some more incredible material on Parshat Yitro, thankfully, on Aleph Beta, we've been known for one or two video courses on this week's parsha. One of my favorites is actually our Shavuot material from two years ago connecting this incredible episode at Sinai with Yovel and really some amazing material there discussing the implications in social justice of the great event that disrupts the world order of God revealing himself to the people. You really should check out. It's incredible. You can check it out at alephbeta.org. We're going to put a link in the show notes.
Also, another amazing piece of content that is seriously, I think, one of our Number 1 courses at Aleph Beta is our piece on the 10 Commandments. Rabbi Fohrman does a magical job exploring the hidden structure of the 10 Commandments. You have to check it out, you will not be sorry.