Mixed Multitudes: The Firstborn Son

I should have felt resentful toward the Hebrews, for whose sake the curses of their God had befallen my people, but in fact all I felt that night as I lay in my bed waiting to die was an immense sense of relief. I remember thinking, My life is about to be over. After tonight, I will never have to lie to anyone about who I am again. Perhaps that in itself is a kind of mercy.

When I awoke the next morning, I was filled with confusion. At first I thought it hadn’t happened, that the Pharaoh had defeated the Hebrews’ God after all. I felt a pang of sympathy for the Hebrew slaves. Ah well, I thought, it just shows that it is better not to hope, not even for release. But then I heard the wailing from outside, a cry of anguish rising up from the houses of my town such as I had never heard, and a kind of wonder crept over me, for I knew that it had happened after all. But why had I of all the firstborn sons of Egypt been spared?

I went to see their prophetess. I found her with a group of other women, face and arms covered with flour, hurriedly mixing dough in preparation for their departure. 

“That will never have time to rise,” I observed.

She didn’t even look up, focused on her work. “We’ll make do. Now what is it you wanted? Better make it quick — as you can see, we’re in kind of a hurry.”

Haltingly, uncomfortably aware of the eyes of the women upon me, I told her who I was and put my question to her: “Why was I, of all the firstborn sons of Egypt, spared?”

Now she did look up, when her eyes met mine they crinkled up and she laughed. My heart went cold — somehow this daughter of slaves knew what I had never uttered to a living soul.

“Do you think anything is hidden from the eyes of God?” she said. “The firstborn son of your house is dead, but you were spared. If you ask me, I think you’ll be better off without him. Now come along and help me with this bread.”

Still smiling, I got down on my knees alongside the other women of Israel and began to knead.

Mixed Multitudes: The Boy Next Door

The boy next door was about my own age. It’s funny, but I can’t seem to remember what his name was anymore. When we were small he would show up at our door every morning, politely asking if I would come out to play. I always did. His parents were Egyptian and mine were Hebrew, my parents slaves and his free, but that didn’t seem to matter… that is, until my brother Chayim was born. Nowadays when a woman gives birth to a son it’s a cause for celebration, but back then the prayer on every pregnant woman’s lips was that God would give her a daughter. We daughters, you see, were allowed to live. The Pharaoh’s men came for my brother Chayim on the day of his brit milah. After Chayim was taken, whenever the boy from next door came to ask for me I would hide and pretend I wasn’t there. I could no longer bring myself to play with a child of the people who had stolen my brother from me.

Then the man of God came. We watched as plague after plague rained down upon the Egyptians, and in my heart I was glad, for the sake of my brother who was never allowed to live. But after the darkness departed and the Pharaoh still refused to let us go free, the word reached us that God was planning to visit one more plague upon the Egyptians — the death of every firstborn male. Standing outside our house, watching my father as he painted the doorposts with blood to ward away the angel of death, I looked over at the house next door, and saw the boy I used to play with looking back at me through the window. From the look on his face I could tell he knew well what was in store for him. All at once the memory of our time spent playing in the courtyard came flooding back, and I knew what I had to do. I talked with my mother and father, and they talked with his mother and father. That night, when we celebrated the Passover feast, there was one more sitting at our table than there had been the night before. And when we departed Egypt the next day, my brother Chayim went with us.  

Mixed Multitudes: The Borrower

The Hebrews came to our doors in the early morning on the day when they were to leave us, asking to borrow our fine clothes, our vessels of gold and silver, to be used for the festival of their God. We knew it was a lie, of course — the part about borrowing. And they knew we knew. And yet we gave willingly. Why? 

I knew the woman who showed up at my door. She was much older now, her back bent with toil, face lined with years of hardship, but still I remembered her as she had been on that day long ago when the Pharaoh’s men shoved her roughly out of the very same door I was standing in now. “Egypt for Egyptians,” is what they called it, but the thing I remember most was the look on her face as she was cast out from the home she and her family had lived in for generations to make way for another family — my family. At first we felt guilty, of course, but what could we do? It was the Pharaoh’s will. And then over the course of the years the house began to feel less like someone else’s home and more like our own, and we thought less and less of the Hebrews whose hands had built these walls. Now, standing in the doorway of my home, with my son’s body growing cold in his cot in the kitchen and my husband’s in the bed in the back room, I looked upon the face of the Hebrew woman and remembered. 

“Go,” I said as I handed her the vessels, among them items that had been left by her family when they were forced to leave in haste all those years ago. “And ask for your God to bless me also, for my heart is broken into pieces.”

“Ask Him yourself,” she said, not unkindly. “It is said that He is close to the broken-hearted.”

When the Hebrews marched out later that day, I followed them. I did not look back, nor did I bother to shut the door of the house my family had borrowed for a time. 

Things we learned along the way

This is what we have learned from our wandering
That what you bring with you will never be used for what you think it will
That moments of terrible revelation always forecast themselves like a smoking mountain upon the horizon…
…except when they don’t
That rebellion and dissent are the ordinary way of things in the wilderness
That the journey and the destination have no knowable relationship to one another
That you may have no way of understanding the laws you learn along the way until you have arrived
That the teacher will be punished most harshly of all, and that the students must somehow learn to live with that fact
That some of the people you meet along the way are not people
That some of them are
That a miracle that repeats itself with unfailing regularity is no less a miracle, selah
That life does not ever stop happening
…until it does.

Truth and Fiction, Part 2

As is so frequently the case, it’s been a while since my last post, but I did want to continue the thought I had begun previously. Looking back over the direction I was heading, it now seems to me that what I was saying was starting to get needlessly general, so in this concluding post for Truth and Fiction, I’d like to bring it back to the basic question that might have occurred to anyone reading the previous section: Why Passover? In other words, given that we struggle constantly with the role of the miraculous in religion, why in particular does the story of Passover, and more specifically the moment of the parting of the Sea of Reeds, arouse most intensely these questions for us?

I think that to begin to answer this we have to acknowledge that though the Tanakh is filled with examples of G-d’s miraculous intervention in the affairs of humanity, the…what is the word I’m looking for here? The role, the tenor, the mood of the miraculous event is different from moment to moment in the text. Through most of Genesis the narrative has a very folkloric quality. G-d walks and talks with humanity. Angels pop up here and there, mostly as messengers, sometimes even to marry humans and have children with them. G-d gets angry at humanity and floods the whole world, and only a few generations later mankind gets together and tries to build a tower to heaven. What I’m getting at here is that there’s a mythic quality to much of Genesis that makes it feel much less urgent to strictly define in what sense the stories we’re reading should be regarded as “true.” Certainly there are people who persist in regarding the biblical account of creation, for example, as literally true in a historical sense, but for most of us it isn’t too difficult to regard the stories as metaphors and feel quite comfortable dealing with them at that level.

Not so in Exodus. By the end of Genesis, the narrative has already switched over to a more historical, “realistic” perspective, and with the opening of Exodus this transformation is complete. No longer are we operating in a folkloric mode in which a few larger-than-life figures loom large against a mostly empty background. Exodus opens in such a way as to signal loud and clear that now we are dealing with a much broader stage, in which the political and economic circumstances of nations have as big a role to play as the personalities of individuals:

A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.” (Exodus 1:8-10)

This semihistorical mode is an important part of what makes the Passover story so powerfully relevant in the lives of each generation that retells it. The ethnic tensions that drive the story, as well as the repression and consequent longing for freedom that spring from them, are as real and plausible to us now as they were thousands of years ago. That this relevance is powerful enough to transcend not only time, but also language and cultural identity, speaking meaningfully not only to Jews but to people throughout the world from a vast variety of different backgrounds and historical contexts, is testament to the story’s status as one of the foundational organizational narratives of the human species.

Nevertheless, it is precisely this historically plausible quality of the narrative that makes it seem so vitally important to determine how we are supposed to relate to the miraculous events which occur throughout, breaking forth like lightning against the cloudy sky of historical reality. Because if indeed Exodus starts out by constructing a plausible historical and political stage, it is only with the intention of ultimately destroying it. At its heart, the story of Exodus is about the miraculous power of G-d breaking in from outside the bounds of the seemingly solid cage of political reality in order to change it beyond all recognition.

It is this, I think, that we sense when we fixate on the parting of the Sea of Reeds and the question of whether it “actually happened” or not. When the sea parts and the people of Israel cross on dry land to escape their oppressors, something infinitely greater is at stake than the mere question of G-d’s ability or willingness to suspend the ordinary functioning of the laws of nature. Contained within this fantastic event is the thesis that there is a power within and behind the world utterly opposed to systems of repression, able to free us from the bonds of historical necessity that seem to dictate that the way of the world is the foot of the powerful upon the neck of the weak. My belief is that, subconsciously at least, when we ask about whether Moses really parted the Sea of Reeds, we’re not really inquiring about the simple factual matter, but about the radical thesis it communicates.

Truth and Fiction, Part 1

At the seder last night someone asked me, “So, did Moses really part the Red Sea?” Totally unprepared and not sure what to answer, all I could think of to say was, “Of course not, God did.” Kind of an evasive response, actually, but I was on the spot.

I’ve been getting these kinds of question a lot lately since it came out I’m going to be attending rabbinical school. The assumptions of knowledge and competency they imply can be disconcerting on occasion, but it does keep me on my toes. But it did occur to me later that this question, or some version of it, has been asked at every seder I’ve been to, and that made me wonder if that says something interesting about us and our relation to the holiday.

I mentioned this to my wife this morning, and what she said pretty much hits the nail on head, I think: “They want to know if they’ve been fooled by religion.” And don’t we all, really? This comment greatly reminded me of the way Emmanuel Levinas begins the preface to his great work on ethics, Totality and Infinity: “Everyone will readily agree that it is of the highest importance to know whether we are not duped by morality.” Same question.

It’s a common question, in fact, a question that has been floating around like an angry hornet in the room ever since the advent of modernity. In fact, it may be precisely this question which constitutes the distinction between “we moderns” and the era that came before us. None of us can escape it, from the skeptic who’s been stung by the hornet one too many times to the fundamentalist whose attempts to ignore it invest every word and deed with a crazed intensity that his ancient forbears would never have recognized as their own. No one can sleep in a room with an angry wasp and none of us can feel totally comfortable with this question buzzing around.

I think the crux of this anxiety revolves around the diverging paths that Fact and Value have taken over the past several hundred years. This is a horribly oversimplified way of putting things, I know, but I would argue that whereas Fact and Value used to form two sides of a single concept known as Truth, the whole story of the past half millenium or so has been about the two breaking apart in uncomfortable and destabilizing ways and various more or less unsuccessful attempts to bring them back together.

More on this later. In the meantime, if anyone wants to weigh in, please post a comment here on my blog or Facebook. It would seriously make my day.