Eagles and Morality – Birds in the news

Lately, birds have flown into the news.

The Federal Register disclosed that the Obama administration will allow companies to seek authorization to kill and harm bald and golden eagles for up to 30 years without penalty in an effort to balance some of the environmental trade-offs of green energy. The bald eagle, (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), the American national bird, is the only eagle unique to North America. The easing of these regulations angered environmentalists, who pointed to a study by federal biologists released in September 2013 that found that since 2008, wind farms had killed at least 67 bald and golden eagles, a number that the researchers said was likely underestimated. Protected since 1972 under the Endangered Species Act, the eagle was quietly removed from the Act under pressure from the Wind Energy industry in 2007. The birds are now protected under the much less restrictive Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

Critics say that Israel, like the bald eagle, is also less well protected under the Obama administration. The Hebrew nesher can be rendered either as eagle or vulture. While most native English speakers who know Hebrew will identify the nesher with the eagle, and the ayit with the vulture, Israelis, on the other hand, generally reverse the definitions.The Jewish Publication Society’s standard translation of the Bible defines nesher as an eagle, for example, in Exodus 19:4, translating “on eagles’ wings,” while the authoritative Hebrew Daat Mikra, in accordance with Rav Saadiah Gaon (882 – 942), almost always identifies the nesher with the Griffon Vulture. The Even-Shoshan Dictionary (Hebrew-Hebrew) has the Griffon Vulture as the primary definition for nesher, with eagle as only a secondary option. The Alcalay Dictionary (Hebrew-English) has exactly the opposite order.

In discussing the laws of non-kosher birds, the nesher, the king of birds, is listed first: “And these are they which you shall have in abomination among the birds; they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination; the nesher… (Leviticus 11:13-19).”

In his farewell address to the nation, Moses focused on the responsibilities of the eagle as leader.  The Torah says, “Kenesher yair kino… Like an eagle who rouses his nestlings, gliding down to his young, so did He [God] spread His wings and take him, bear him along on His pinions” (Deut. 32:11). Man is supposed to emulate this Divine attribute of leadership.

H. Ross Perot famously observed, “Eagles don’t flock. You have to find them one at a time.” On July 20, 1969 Neil Armstrong gushed, “Houston, the Eagle has landed,” to confirm to Mission Control that the first man-made craft (the “Eagle”) landed safely on the moon; ever since it’s become an indication for completion of mission objective.

These same qualities of strength, leadership and independence (and inevitably, scarcity) motivated the Founding Fathers, just a few hours after the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, to form a Committee to design a seal for the United States as symbol of sovereignty for the new nation. When Charles Thomson put together the final design for the Great Seal in June 1782, he made as its centerpiece an “American Eagle on the wing and rising.” In the Bald Eagle’s stronger right talon, Thomson placed the olive branch. The eagle faces toward this ancient symbol that Thomson called “the power of peace.” In its left talon, the eagle holds the power of war, symbolized by the bundle of 13 arrows. Ironically, while the eagle on the Great Seal has always faced the olive branch, the eagle on the Seal of the President faces the arrows of war. The Great Seal was adopted by Congress on June 20, 1782 and is depicted on the back of the $1 bill.

Benjamin Franklin was no fan of the Eagle as a national symbol. He complained, in a letter to his daughter Sally (Mrs. Sarah Bache) in 1784, that the eagle was a rank coward: “The little kingbird not bigger than a sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District.”

Thomas Jefferson said, and it’s oft quoted, “Honesty is the first chapter of the book of wisdom.” He also said, “I have never believed there was one code of morality for a public and another for a private man.

One more aphorism.

“There can be no public or private virtue unless the foundation of action is the practice of truth.” This thought – not at all in conflict with Jefferson’s – was expressed by George Jacob Holyoake (1817 – 1906), a younger British contemporary of Jefferson who coined the term secularism. It may surprise some to learn that it was said by a leader of the National Reform League. Holyoake was imprisoned in 1842, convicted of blasphemy charged with “condemning Christianity.” He was the last person convicted for blasphemy in a public lecture.

Periodic lack of candor in government has attracted critics of all stripes, on the right, in the middle and on the left.

George Jarkesy, Chairman of The National Eagles and Angels Association, radio host and guest on FOX Business News, FOX & Friends, and CNBC is one such Obama administration critic. He fumed at the Obama administration for selling out their “Faithful Ally Israel,” terming it a  “sacrificial lamb to Obama’s incompetence.” This view was apparently shared by many in a March 2013 Jerusalem Post/Smith research survey which revealed that 55 percent of Israeli respondents said they do not count on the United States to “take care of its [Israel’s] security in negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue.” Only one third of the respondents said they “count on” the Obama administration.

Jonathan Tobin responded similarly in Commentary to US Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ criticism of Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu. The former Secretary had blasted Israel as an “ungrateful ally.” Tobin pointed out “that this act of impudence took place just days after the president chose to ambush the Israeli by timing a speech aimed at tilting the diplomatic playing field against the Jewish state on the eve of Netanyahu’s visit to the United States. Far from being the patient, faithful ally who had gone the extra mile for Israel, the Obama administration had once again picked an unnecessary fight,” Tobin complained.

Is such a scenario compatible with our image of an eagle?

Rabbi Shimon bar Lakish (bar Lakisha), a reformed bandit better known by his nickname Resh Lakish, was an amora (renowned Jewish scholars who practiced the teachings of the Oral Law) who lived in the Roman province of Syria Palaestina in the third century CE. He said, “the king of birds is the eagle (Haggiah 13b).” Tellingly, however, the Talmud, like Ben Franklin about 1300 years afterwards, noted that the female eagle, with a wingspan of 79 to 90 inches fears the little swallow, with a wingspan of just 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 inches.

“Our Rabbis taught: There are five instances of fear [cast] by the weak over the strong: …  the fear of the swallow upon the eagle (Shabbat 77b).”

In contrast to the eagle, who is a bird of prey, President Shimon Peres of Israel is known as the dove of peace, or yonah in Hebrew. In 1994, he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin. Peres recently told CNN’s Richard Quest at the 2013 Globes Israel Business Conference in Tel Aviv conference of his willingness to meet with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani in pursuit of peace.

The dove, a kosher bird, is a columbia, one of the most familiar species of pigeon. It is universally associated with peace. The Talmud likens the community of Israel to a dove, (Gittin 45a), based on the splendid description of the dove in Psalm 68:14, “Wings of the dove, covered with silver, and her pinions with the shimmering gold.” The dove’s gentleness and grace make it a favorite simile for female beauty and tenderness and its faithfulness to its mate is a symbol of conjugal fidelity and devotion.

For example, Rabbi Yochanan is quoted in the Talmud as saying, “Had the Torah not been given, we would have learned modesty from the cat, [aversion to] theft from the ant, and faithfulness in relations from the dove, (Eruvin 100b).” The commentator Rashi (1040-1105) explains: Modesty from the cat: because it covers up its excrement; honesty from the ant, as one ant does not take the food of another ant, and fidelity from the dove: doves are faithful to a single partner.

This brings us to our third bird, the hoopoe (duchifat in Hebrew), also non-kosher. Ironically, it’s designated as Israel’s national bird.

The hoopoe is celebrated, among other things, as the messenger who shuttled between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, a fascinating tale recounted by David Ben-Abraham in “The Queen of Sheba.” The film provides an elaboration on the Biblical story in 1 Kings 10:1-2. An even more elaborate account of the Queen’s visit is given in the Aramaic Targum Sheni to Esther, an exuberant midrash dated uncertainly between the fourth and 11th centuries. 

According to legend, the hoopoe can catch and harness the shamir. Rabbinic literature describes the shamir, which means a sharp object, as having being used to engrave the breast plate of the High Priest. Among Solomon’s many possessions, the shamir was reportedly the most wondrous (Sotah 48b). It’s a nagar turia, or mountain chiseler, capable of cutting through stone.  There is a fantastic Talmudic story in Gittin 68b.  It tells of King Solomon. “What I want is to build the Temple,” the King says. In accordance with the Biblical dictum, it needed to be built so “there was neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron heard in the house while it was in building.” Solomon asked the Rabbis, “How shall I manage [without iron tools]?” They replied, “There is the shamir.” Solomon inquired, “where will he find the shamir?”

“We do not know,” he was told,  “but perhaps Ashmedai the prince of the demons knows.”

The Talmud tells us that he [Ashmedai] said, “it is not in my hands, it is in the hands of the Prince of the Sea who gives it only to the hoopoe, a woodpecker, to whom he trusts it on oath.” What does the bird do with it? He takes it to a mountain where there is no cultivation and puts it on the edge of the rock which thereupon splits, and he then takes seeds from trees and brings them and throws them into the opening and things grow there. The key element of this description is that the hoopoe utilizes its clawing ability to pick up and control the shamir.

In these turbulent times, we can only hope that a shamir, competently directed by a benevolent hoopoe can once again get things to grow and bloom peacefully where there is no cultivation. 

About the Author
David E Y Sarna is a writer and former entrepreneur. He has six published books and is currently working on Evernote For Dummies, V2. He has nearly completed his first novel, about the Jewish treasures in the Vatican's secret archives and is working on a book about the Talmud for general readers. He lives in Teaneck, NJ. His publications and CV are available at http://independent.academia.edu/DavidSarna