The opening verse of Parashat Shemini tells that on the day when Aharon and his sons began serving as kohanim, Moshe summoned them, as well as the nation’s elders, to convey to them the instructions regarding the special sacrifices that were to be offered that day. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 11:8) cites Rabbi Akiva as finding significance in the fact that the nation’s elders were included on this occasion. Rabbi Akiva remarked, “Israel are compared to a bird: Just as a bird cannot fly without wings, similarly, Israel cannot do anything without their elders.” The Midrash proceeds to note how the elders were included also at other critical moments in Benei Yisrael’s early history, such as when Moshe confronted Pharaoh to demand the nation’s release (Shemot 3:16, 4:29). Our nation requires the wisdom and guidance of its elders, Rabbi Akiva taught, as a bird needs its wings.
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz explained the meaning of Rabbi Akiva’s comment by noting that birds can, in fact, function without wings. All creatures besides birds survive without flying, and birds could do the same. However, without their wings, birds lose their unique feature, their defining characteristic. Birds need their wings not to survive, but to realize their purpose, to actualize their unique identity. Similarly, Rav Shmuelevitz explained, Am Yisrael can survive without fealty to its “elders,” to its ancient tradition and heritage, but we would lose our unique identity and fail to fulfill our mission and reach our destiny. Our purpose is not to remain “on the ground,” to live like other peoples, but rather to “soar,” to rise above the rest of the world, to live at a morally and spiritually superior standard. And this mission can be achieved only with our “wings” – our loyalty to our ancient laws and traditions as conveyed to us by the Torah scholars of each generation.
We might also suggest an additional insight into the significance of Rabbi Akiva’s analogy between the nation’s elders and birds. The elders, whose lives have spanned more than just a single generation, who have experienced and witnessed shifting trends and drastic changes, have the benefit of a broader perspective, of a “bird’s eye view” of the world and of life. The younger generation have a relatively limited range of experience and exposure, and are thus prone to failing to see the larger picture. The older generation serves as our “wings” which lift us above the here-and-now, the immediate present, our current context, giving us a clearer picture of how the world works and how we should act. As the Torah is for us to apply and observe in every generation and under all conditions, we require the perspective of the elders, an appreciation and understanding of historical and cultural changes, so we know how to best apply, practice and preserve the Torah in our generation and successfully transmit it to the next.