In some past columns, you've referred to a teaching method employed by eagles to help their babies learn to fly. You've said that they literally bat a falling baby before it hits the ground. I've looked through heaps of books about birds in an effort to confirm this odd-sounding behavior and have yet to find any scientific observation of same. -- S.C., a cynical reader
The biblical reference you seek is from Exodus 19:4: "Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto Myself." The question is, what does this eagle metaphor mean? Eagles have large pinion feathers, so one obvious meaning is that God carried the people to freedom the way an adult eagle carries its young upon its wings.
My teacher, Rabbi Nelson Glueck, who spent much time as a biblical archeologist in the Judean wilderness, told me his interpretation based on witnessing several eaglet training flights.
Eagles nest high up and over escarpments, places where it's a long way down. When eaglets first attempt to fly, they fly a little and tumble down a lot. The parents catch them and help them fly again. The adults don't actually bat the babies back up into the sky, however. They catch them on their wings.
This image fits perfectly into the theology of Exodus, where God also lets us try our wings of freedom while helping us with teachings and miracles to recover when we fall. I'm betting on my teacher's experience.
I guess no one can say for sure, but when we die, do we know it? I wonder about loved ones who've passed away. Did they know what happened and that they're away from us? When they died, did they know and see us grieving? Do they know about what we're doing now and that we miss them? -- J., from North Carolina via email
Religious teachings on this matter seem to settle around the fundamental belief that love never dies. The source of love is God, so the place of love in us is our soul. Therefore, it makes spiritual sense that the souls of our dearly departed continue to love us after they separate from their bodies at death. How they manifest that love is, of course, a great and enduring mystery. Perhaps they find ways to show that they're watching over us.
You don't have to believe in ghosts or things that go bump in the night. Maybe such signs are small. After my dad died, a yellow finch appeared at my window and stayed there for the longest time, pecking at the glass. I'd never seen such a bird before or since, but I'm not one to generally read supernatural meaning into natural events. Perhaps it was just a hungry bird that never knew my dad. In any event, the belief that love never dies should give you comfort in knowing that the souls of your loved ones are safe with God. I actually admire the courage of atheists in being able to live their lives secure in the knowledge that when we die, the worms eat us and that's that. They may be correct, or we religious folk may be correct that love never dies and that death is not the end of us.
I believe we're not living our lives alone in a cold, unfeeling cosmos. I believe we're free and morally challenged, but above all, I believe we are watched over by those we've loved and by the God who makes all love -- and the greatest love -- possible.