From the Exodus from Egypt to the Footsteps of the Messiah

A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces,
An airline ticket to romantic places,
And still my heart has wings…
These foolish things remind me of you.

Eric Maschwitz (1935)


These are some thoughts prompted by the mention by our Teacher Moses of the hooves of animals in a tense colloquy with Pharaoh, in a recent weekly Torah portion. Partly humorous, partly homiletic, partly philological, they are also in part wistful memoir. I offer the essay to the readers of the Times of Israel with good wishes, in times of war, terrorism, and natural disaster, in the hope that it may provide a measure of relief and enjoyment, and edification in Torah, the heart of what makes us Jews, whether here in the Diaspora or there at home. Shabbat shalom!


My first time in our capital and home, Jerusalem, was in the hot summer of 1971: a youth of seventeen, I was excited to use my Hebrew, acquired in school back in New York, and to pray at the Western Wall, which had been liberated only four years earlier. As my friends and I ambled around the Old City and East Jerusalem, friendly Arab residents— mainly teenagers but also some shopkeepers— accosted us often with the same joke, that seemed to be making the rounds that year: “Hey, you left something behind you!” We turned back anxiously. “Your footsteps!” came the punchline, delivered in heavily accented English, and followed by gales of laughter. Looking back, I suppose the idea is that one inevitably does leave footprints behind one, but being light and evanescent on the pavement, they are scarcely a thing. None of us innocents abroad thought the joke was all that funny: watching our Ishmaelite cousins slapping their knees and splitting their sides, we chalked it up to one more conundrum of the mysterious East.

Decades later and thousands of miles away, Harvard’s Christian chaplain, the Rev. Peter Gomes of blessed memory, was entertaining a group of elderly, wealthy alumni donors at his canary-yellow residence a stone’s throw from my office in the Semitic Museum. (The Near East department shared the space with Egyptian mummies, dioramas of ancient Israel, and so on. The building has since been renamed; but one recalls a pair of visitors to the exhibits. As they passed a faculty office, the father said to his little son, “These poor bastards have to spend their lives studying Semitic inscriptions.”) One Maecenas had recently shuffled off this mortal coil, and his fellows were anxious to find out the size of the bequest he had made to Alma Mater. “What did he leave?” they asked, to which Gomes replied, “Everything.” Now that is drily very funny indeed: the interlocutor is using one code, that of last wills and testaments; and the respondent is switching to another, the code of existential questions, of life and death.

As you walk on this earth you leave your footprints behind you; when you die, you leave everything else, too. Let us go farther back, long before John Harvard made a bequest of books in 1636 to a little school in a farmyard, long before Herod built the retaining wall of his new, expanded Temple Mount, to the times when carpenters were making those Egyptian mummy cases and scribes were chiseling the Semitic inscriptions that we poor bastards now have to read.

The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, to drive in the message of every one of the ten plagues; but Moses was correspondingly severe. He did not ask, he demanded that Egypt let the Children of Israel go; and the Midrash elaborates that Aaron, Moses’ elder brother, spoke on his behalf not only because Moses stuttered but also because the latter addressed the king in Hebrew. He did not deign to speak Egyptian— he had shed the very language of that realm of slavery and defilement— and therefore required an interpreter. Their colloquies have something of the flavor of negotiation over terms, or at least the Pharaonic party has. When in Exodus 10 Pharaoh says all the Israelites, including their families, can go serve the Lord, but must leave their herds behind, Moses retorts that Egypt must provide the sacrificial animals. Moreover (Exodus 10:26): Ve-gam miqnenu yelekh ‘imanu lo tisha’er parsa ki mimenu niqaḥ la-‘avod et Hashem Eloheinu va-anaḥnu lo neda‘ ma na‘avod et Hashem ‘ad ba’nu shama. “Our livestock will go with us too. Not a hoof will remain because we will take from them to serve the Lord our God; and we won’t know what we must serve the Lord with, till after we will have got there.” Not a hoof will remain: taken literally, it means every animal owned by the Israelites must go. Taken metaphorically— and here one recalls the Arabic joke— it means nothing belonging to Israel will be left behind for the Egyptians, not even our footsteps or the hoofprints of our quadrupeds. Taken metaphysically— and now one summons the wit of Rev. Gomes of blessed memory— it means that even if you leave all your earthly possessions behind when your soul departs your body, when God is guiding you from the darkness of the slave world into the world of light, then you take everything with you, including hooves and their hoofprints. And maybe those footsteps metaphorically are other tracks, too, like those harbingers of universal salvation, the footsteps of the Messiah, as we shall see presently.

Israel, free to go at last after centuries of servitude, despoiled the Egyptians: at the minimum, this was back pay, but it covered reparations, too. The verse from the book of Exodus cited above comes from the Parasha— the weekly Torah reading from the Pentateuch— Bo; the crossing of the Red Sea happens in Beshalaḥ, a week later. Each Parasha of the Torah is followed by the reading of an assigned, liturgically canonical shorter portion from elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, the Hafṭara or “Conclusion”. (When I was an impatient boy fidgeting on Shabbat in the Fort Tryon Jewish Center in upper Manhattan, I thought the Hebrew word, which Ashkenazim— Jews hailing from Eastern and Central Europe— pronounce Haftorah, meant “half Torah” since it was not as long as the Torah portion!) This additional reading mirrors or highlights some theme or literary device of the Torah reading preceding it. Since Beshalaḥ includes the Song of Moses (also called the Song at the Sea), which is versified in Torah scrolls, and for which the congregation stand, the choice of Judges 4:4-5:31 for the Hafṭara that week stands to reason, since it includes the Song of the victorious Deborah over the defeated, pharaonically tyrannical Canaanite Sisera. One victory song— let’s cue another victory song. The hits, as they used to say, keep on coming. But wait, there’s more!

Sisera, killed by Yael with her trusty tent peg, lies dead. But his mother, waiting for him to return in triumph, doesn’t know this, and can’t hear the Israelites’ victory song. The concluding verses of the Song of Deborah vengefully, mockingly, evoke the scene of the triumph that is not to be (Judges 5:28-31): Be-‘ad ha-ḥalon nishqefa va-teyabev/ em Sisera be-‘ad ha-eshnav/ madu‘a boshesh rikhvo la-vo’/ madu‘a eḥeru pa‘amei markevotav./ Ḥakhmot śaroteha ta‘anenah/ af hi’ tashiv amareha lah/ ha-lo yimṣe’u yeḥalqu shalal/ raḥam raḥamatayim le-ro’sh gever/ shelal ṣeva‘im le-Sisera/ shelal ṣeva‘im riqma/ ṣeva‘ riqmatayim le-ṣav’erei shalal./ Ken yo’vedu kol oyevekha Hashem/ ve-’ohavav ke-ṣe’t ha-shemesh bi-gevurato… “She peered out of the window and lamented;/ the mother of Sisera, at the lattice:/ ‘Why does his charioteer tarry in coming?/ Why are the footsteps of his chariots’ [horses] delayed?’/ The wise amongst her ladies answered her;/ Even she replied with [the same] words to herself—/ ‘Surely they are finding and dividing the spoils,/ A womb [i.e., concubine?] or two to each man,/ Spoils of many-colored [cloth] for Sisera,/ Spoils of embroidered many-colored cloth,/ An embroidery or two for the necks of the despoilers.’/ Thus may all Your enemies perish, O Lord!/ But those who love Him, [may they be] as the rising of the sun in its might…” These vivid lines would have evoked an entire picture for the ancient Near Eastern listener. (The solar imagery recalls the image in Psalm 19 of the rising sun as a mighty champion; as well as another warrior among the Judges, Samson, whose unusual Hebrew name, Shimshon, indeed derives from Hebrew shemesh, “sun”.) The image of a woman in the window, even if not in the open but peering more modestly through a latticework screen, might conjure the scene depicted by a famous Phoenician ivory carving now in the British Museum, that was found in the remains of Neo-Assyrian Nimrud. It depicts a woman from the neck up, looking out at one through an open window.

It is widely surmised that the Tyrian lady in the picture is a harlot— perhaps the setting might have borne the overtone of a slight to the mother of Sisera. In any case, the irony is operatically sumptuous, Verdi’s “Aïda” before the fact: the expected victors (to whom belong, as the cliché reminds us, the spoils— and those are adumbrated) are in fact the defeated. The longed-for hoofbeats (or, footsteps— Hebrew, pe‘amim) of the returning chariot horses are never to be heard; nor will they leave hoofprints in the dirt of the road. It is, of course, the very opposite of the figure of hooves employed by Moses in his confrontation with Sisera’s precursor, Pharaoh. There, Israel will take all its livestock, leaving not a trace behind; here, as with the Egyptian chariots whelmed in the Red Sea, no war horse’s hoof will sound and no track will be made for anyone to see. The awaited, longed for footsteps will never be heard; nor their tracks, seen. Sisera’s mother waits in vain. The entire Canaanite disaster is evoked in the future perfect, as it were, as an impossibility.

There are other footsteps, too— the footsteps of God’s anointed, His Messiah (the Hebrew word, like its Greek translation, Khristos, means, simply, anointed: pouring aromatic oil on the candidate’s head was part of the ritual ceremony of coronation). And when they are mentioned in Scripture, the loudest resonance of such heavy treads down the long tradition is not to be historical and retrospective but eschatological and predictive of the future. Psalm 89:52 complains, Asher ḥarfu oyevekha Hashem asher ḥarfu ‘iqvot meshiḥekha “Wherewith Your enemies have scorned, O Lord; wherewith they have scorned the footsteps of Your anointed [lit., Messiah].” The original meaning of the verse had to do with crowds lining the sides of the road at a triumph (of the sort Sisera’s mother was anxiously hoping for) jeering a captive king of Israel stumbling along in chains— God’s anointed. But after the eclipse of earthly kingship and the evolution of eschatological beliefs, the verse was to be interpreted in an apocalyptic manner. Unlike Christians, Jews do not believe the Messiah has come yet; and one of the thirteen points of faith advanced by Maimonides declares belief that the Messiah will come “although he tarry” (hopefully, not the way Sisera did). The major commentators on the Psalter agree. Sforno, Radak, and Ibn Ezra comment that the scorn of his enemies noted by the Psalmist is a major factor in delaying the coming of the Messiah.

Maimonides sensibly suggested that in Messianic times the laws of nature will still function normally— a physician, he appreciated the intricate operation of nature as something miraculous in itself and said that the main alteration would be in human behavior, which would become rational and kind. For instance, people would stop scorning the Messiah and His tracks, cf. Psalm 89. In medieval disputations organized by Christians anxious for the Jews to convert, the latter pointed out that Christ came and went but the world hasn’t changed, and people are still irrational and mean. The medieval scholar and mystic Nachmanides (whose Hebrew acronym, Ramban, differs from that of Maimonides, Rambam, by only one letter, so it’s easier to use their Greek monikers) won one such staged debate and even received a cash award from the appreciative local ruler afterwards. The defeated Dominican disputants had thought the fix was in, and were surprised and sore losers (cf. the Jews’ point that people are still mean). Nachmanides was forced to leave town, so he made Aliyah to the Land of Israel. He was safe there from further disputations, since the Muslim rulers professed a Christology that recognized Jesus as a rightly guided prophet— but that’s all. Because they rejected Christ’s divinity, the Muslims were regarded by Christians at the time, rather uncharitably, not as a separate religion, but as adherents of the Adoptionist heresy. The Muslim messiah, called the Mahdi, or rightly guided one, has not come yet, either.

If the Messiah is expected but delayed, one naturally looks hopefully for signs of his impending arrival— his footsteps, traces, tracks. The Aramaic of the expression in Psalm 89, ‘iqveta’ di-mshiḥa’, has become the standard term for this. Israelis today would consider the arrival of Iranian soldiers on their territory as apocalyptic perhaps, but not in a good way. But two millennia ago, at the time of occupation of the land by the oppressive pagan Romans (who had, inter alia, crucified Jesus Christ and destroyed the Second Temple, although they provided the country with roads, aqueducts, and bath houses— which, the sages of the Talmud point out sourly, benefited the Romans themselves more than anybody else), many Jews looked for political liberation and eschatological redemption to pre-Islamic, Zoroastrian Iran. The Parthian Arsacid dynasty were particularly favorable to the Jews. Their successors, the Persian Sasanians, were less so; but in Rabbinic texts the Iranians tend to be referred to as Persians, no matter what part of the vast Iranian realm they are from. And it was the Zoroastrians were the ones who had come up with the idea of a universal, cosmic savior— as opposed to a local, mortal king— in the first place.

Thus we have the well-known commentary in Midrash Rabbah on the book of Lamentations 1:13: Paraś reshet le-raglai. Amar Rabbi Abba’ bar Kahana’ ’im ra’ita safsalin mele’im bavliyim munaḥei be-Ereṣ Yiśra’el ṣapeh le-raglav shel mashiaḥ, mah ṭa‘am, paraś reshet le-raglai. Tanei Rabbi Shim‘on Ben Yoḥa’i im ra’ita sus parsi qashur be-Ereṣ Yiśra’el ṣapeh le-raglav shel mashiaḥ, mah ṭa‘am ve-hayah zeh shalom ashur… “‘He cast a net for my feet.’ Rabbi Abba bar Kahana said, ‘If you see benches full of Babylonians situated in the Land of Israel, expect the feet of Messiah. What is the source? ‘He cast a net for my feet.’ Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai taught that if you see a Persian horse tethered in the Land of Israel, expect the feet of Messiah. What is the source? ‘This will be peace, when Assyria…’ [Micah 5:4]” Perhaps there are several multiply polysemic puns and wordplays here, which is not at all unusual in Rabbinic literature. First, Hebrew paraś “spread” and parash “horse, horseman”, when the consonants are undotted, are spelled identically, hence the horse as a sign of the advent of the Messiah. Moreover, Par(a)s “Persia”, the verb pars “spread”, and the verb pars “to have hooves” (one is to recall here the livestock of the Israelites, not one hoof of which is to be left behind in Egypt), are also spelled identically. Second, Assyria in Hebrew is Ashshur (which in the early Christian centuries was the western borderland of the Parthian Empire, hence the topical relevance); and there is an unrelated homonym, quite common in the Psalms, ashshur, meaning “footstep”. And we are looking and listening for the Messiah’s tracks, after all. If “Assyria” can also mean “footstep”, so much the better. When the Parthian horseman, having taken Parthian shots at the retreating Roman legionaries, finally dismounts to rest and tethers his horse in the Land of Israel, messianic redemption will be afoot as well.

Looking out for the elusive, stubbornly delayed ‘iqveta’ di-mshiḥa’ became a kind of obsession for Jews belabored by the exigencies of exile, and even maybe a cottage industry. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer told an old joke about this. The people of Chelm— a town in Poland proverbially and unfairly considered to be stupid (like Fresno, where I live, is in Californian popular culture)— believed the Messiah might come any minute but were afraid he would miss Chelm on his way to a more important place, like Warsaw, and they would be left out of redemption. To make sure they got advance sighting of his steps, they put a chair by the side of the road at the city limits and hired a fellow to sit there every day and keep a look out. The punchline: “It didn’t pay much, but it was a steady job.”

Some Jews got tired of waiting with bated breath for the tracks of the Redeemer. He should come already. There were a number of messianic movements over the ages, all of them abortive; and in the 17th century the false messiah Shabbetai Tsvi attracted an international following: when his mission, too, inevitably failed and he converted to Islam rather than face execution by the irate Ottoman Sultan, some diehards insisted that apostasy, too, was a sign of his apocalyptic mission, and they followed his example: small, rather secretive communities of Dönmes (Turkish, “Converts (to Islam)”) endure to this day. Since they keep to themselves, the lore of curious outsiders is full of the salacious activities they supposedly get up to, including the persistent urban legend of “candle extinguishing”— a rite that consists of eating a big, phallus-shaped cake (something like a Russian Easter kulich, I imagine), turning off the lights, and indulging in free-for-all orgies. Small change for those of us who grew up in the swinging 1960s, but titillating enough.

Another Jewish legend has it that the Messiah is already here, a man of constant sorrow disguised as a beggar in Rome— the age-old lair of the enemy oppressor. (That right there is an enduring motif: Isaac Asimov in his Foundation novels hides the banned order of Hari Seldon’s psychohistorians in plain sight, at the core of the evil galactic empire itself, the megalopolis-planet Trantor.) The Rambam has told us to be patient, even if He tarries. But why does He delay? The founder of modern Hasidism, the Ba‘al Shem Ṭov (the Besht, for short), went to Heaven in the company of his spirit-guide, the ancient prophet Achiyah the Shilonite, decades after the traumatic collapse of the Sabbatean cult to ask the vexed question. The Messiah— who was up there, not down here on earth in the Eternal City— promised He would come once the Besht’s teachings had spread everywhere. The Hasidic movement, spurred by this redemptive promise, proliferated with a sense of urgency and purpose. Hasidism popularizes mystical Kabbalistic teachings hitherto reserved for esoteric illuminati; but that is a sort of hastening of the process. The Hasidic holy man Aaron of Starosel’ye taught, following the revelation of the Besht, that “in these later ages, when the footsteps of the Messiah are heard, it is particularly necessary for men to pave the way for the Messiah by becoming conversant with the divine secrets.”( Louis Jacobs, Seeker of Unity: The Life and Works of Aaron of Starosselje, New York: Basic Books, 1966, p. 82.)

Hasidism accordingly integrated Kabbalah into mainstream Judaism: an important innovation in the life of the ancient faith. In practical terms this also meant the introduction of ecstatic prayer, music, and celebration into a way of life that had become decidedly austere and bookish. That is also nice. There are many Hasidic dynasties or courts, but one in particular, the Lubavitcher Chabad school of Hasidism, has been astonishingly successful in its evangelistic mission of outreach to Jewish communities around the world. Many of these had experienced assimilation and diminution and are now undergoing a revival. The Chabad rabbis and their families who venture forth from Crown Heights in Brooklyn, New York to open synagogues and community centers in remote towns and on college campuses are called Shlichim, “Emissaries”— the Greek of the term is Apostolos. Chabad also exhibits messianic trends that some have criticized as neo- or crypto-Sabbatean. Some Lubavitcher Hasidim and their followers overtly hail the deceased seventh Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, as the messiah. This writer has distinguished Hasidic ancestors and attends a Chabad synagogue. When I asked our Rabbi whether he considers the Rebbe Moshiach (Messiah), he replied, more elegantly in my view than evasively, “Find a Hasid who doesn’t think his Rebbe is Moshiach.” Which is good enough for me, at least.

Back to footsteps, and in the meantime, we have twelve Jewish Apostoloi receiving marching orders from their Rebbe. They are, like the far-flung Chabadnik emissaries of the Rebbe, to limit their activities to the nation of Israel, though in later times their movement was to expand considerably beyond Judaea. They are, not unlike the diverse followers of Chabad today, a motley crew. But it is the first century, and one of these disciples, a young man named Simon, belongs to the Zealots (Hebrew Qanna’im; his Greek epithet is, accordingly, kannaios) a proto-Zionist revolutionary group committed to violent struggle against Roman occupation. Christ tells His emissaries to go evangelize, “And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet” (Matthew 10:14, also Luke and Mark). That is, make like Moses and don’t leave so much as a hoofprint behind— and shake the dirt off your sandals, too, when you leave.

One of the great world religions already mentioned does leave a footprint behind, and how. On the night the Prophet Muḥammad, peace be upon him, traveled to heaven from al-Aqsa— the remotest mosque— to confer with God and bring His commands to the Muslims, he rode a wonderful hybrid creature, Buraq, that launched itself from a rock. Muslim tradition holds that al-Aqsa was the Temple Mount; and Buraq didn’t take off from just any rock, either. It launched from the even shetiya, the foundation stone of the created universe, over which the Holy of Holies of the Temple of Jerusalem was built. Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 53a-b and Sanhedrin 29a in the Jerusalem Talmud relate that when king David dug the pits on mount Moriah for the foundation of the Temple, the Abyss (Hebrew Tehom, from the ancient Mesopotamian Tiamat; the Greek abyssos is a loan from her other name, Apsu) rose and threatened to engulf the world. Aḥitophel, the clever and disloyal courtier, grudgingly advised David on how magically to suppress the waters: by engraving the divine Name upon a potsherd and casting it into the waters. (This is discussed in an article by the author, “A Note on Job 3,” forthcoming in Вопросы Теологии, St. Petersburg State University, Russian Federation, 2023.) The sole footprint that winged creature Buraq presumably ever left is impressed eternally into the hard surface of the hoary stone, within the Dome of the Rock. It is thus the very opposite of the sense of evanescence conjured up by a footstep: a solid memorial of a many-layered past.

Arabic culture has also, very prominently, the poignant image of the vanishing trace of the past, the track that wind and time wear away; and perhaps the very permanence of the hoofprint of Buraq, an emblem of the supernatural career of the Prophet, embodies a deliberately implied contrast to it. There are seven odes— the Mu‘allaqat or “hanging [poems]”—from the jahiliyya, the period of “infancy” that preceded the advent of Islam. A common theme characterizes them: “Traces of an abandoned campsite mark the beginning of the pre-Islamic Arabian ode. They announce the loss of the beloved, the spring rains, and the flowering meadows of an idealized past.” (Michael A. Sells, Desert Tracings: Six Classic Arabian Odes, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1989, p. 3. Although most Arabs were polytheists at the time of the composition of these seven classic qasidas, many were Jews and Christians. Although Sells justifiably criticizes the bias of previous Orientalists towards Arabs, he himself, in noting that the poems mention caravans bearing citrons, cites the Hebrew word for the fruit from which Arabic takes out a loan, etrog— but does not identify its language or mention its use on the Jewish festival of Tabernacles, Sukkot. The point is that citrons were not part of standard fare but were a precious cargo, precisely and only because of their importance to Jews.) The image is so basic that there is a standard term for it, aṭlāl. (Sells 1989, p. 77.) The poignancy of the evanescent is elevated to a principle of Japanese aesthetics, mono no aware. A brush case from which a few pieces of the inlaid mother of pearl are missing, after long use, is prized over a brand-new model. (In the Asian Humanities program at Columbia University many decades ago, discerning this was jocularly called “mono no awareness”.)

And with that, one follows one’s tracks and circles back to the beginning— ring composition is, after all, itself a trace of the literary styles of antiquity. One ought not to smoke; but when folks did, they might muse upon a cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces. The song of the epigraph is Anglo-American aṭlāl and comes, for this writer, from a tradition of orality: my mother Charlotte Sananes Russell, of blessed memory, used to sing it as she prepared dinner in the kitchen, on the late weekday afternoons of my youth. The mighty Hudson River glinted outside the window; serenaded, I dutifully did my homework from the Bronx High School of Science; Dad would come in the door precisely at six; our family sat down together around the dinner table at half past; the classical strains of WQXR radio accompanied us through the evening; and now one finds the traces of those times, the fleeting outlines of home, only in memory. It is understandable why Hebrew zikaron, memory, is not an aesthetic but a moral imperative. Memories, footstep imprinted upon the air, vanishing— but look, they are written down, and thus are, for posterity and even the time of the Messiah— may God bring Him hither soon!— the most indelible footprints of all.

About the Author
Born New York City to Sephardic Mom and Ashkenazic Dad, educated at Bronx Science HS, Columbia, Oxford, SOAS (Univ. of London), professor of ancient Iranian at Columbia, of Armenian at Harvard, lectured on Jewish studies where now live in retirement: Fresno, California. Published many books & scholarly articles. Belong to Chabad.