The Sons of the Fathers: Exodus and Star Wars Through Freudian Eyes

Thirty-six years strikes me as well beyond the statute of limitations on spoiler alerts, but if not, then this would be a good time to stop reading. Because while it would be in bad taste to discuss how the new Star Wars movie ends, at this point it should be safe to openly reflect on the original trilogy, specifically, the pivotal scene in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) when Luke Skywalker discovers the truth about his father. Having seen the new movie right when it came out, I resolved to do what any self-respecting parent would do – download the original Star Wars movies so I could experience them with my children. As I watched my children watch them for the first time, and I saw their reaction when Darth Vader informed Luke that he was, in fact, his father, it became clear to me, in a way that I never realized way back when, what these movies are really all about.

The central drama of this epic space opera is not just good guys vs. bad guys, the romantic tension between Han and Leah, or even a mysterious “force” that pervades the universe. At the core of Star Wars is the most classic mythological trope of all: a tale of father and son. Hidden as a child in order to shield his life from his father, our protagonist Luke grows up unaware of his true identity. Luke’s redemption, we come to realize, will arrive by way of him discovering his true identity. Our hero has a greater purpose, a calling to liberate his people. His path, however, is not straightforward – there is a complication. In order for him to fulfill his personal and national destiny, he will have to confront the very person who not only gave him life, but is also the oppressor of his newfound kin, and, perversely, now seeks his destruction. In the dying words of Yoda: “You must confront Vader. Then, only then, a Jedi you will be.” From the very beginning of the trilogy until its final scene, Star Wars is the story of how one man discovers, confronts and eventually transcends the truth of his paterfamilias, redeems his people, and in doing so, resolves the conflicts embedded in the cornerstone of his identity.

The final book Sigmund Freud wrote, as his health was in decline and he and his family escaped the Nazis to London, was called “Moses and Monotheism.” It is unquestionably a strange and difficult book to read. In a very peculiar fashion, Freud seeks to recapitulate, expand and explain the biography of Moses in a manner that, according to the late scholar of Freud, Dr. Emmanuel Rice, reflects Freud’s own journey home to the Jewish identity from which he had long since been estranged. (E. Rice, Freud and Moses: The Long Journey Home) In all the book’s quirks, there is one suggestion that Freud makes, both simple and significant, that caused me to rethink Moses’ confrontation with Pharaoh in this week’s parasha, and that is the insight that Moses was an Egyptian. “Moses” is an Egyptian name. He grew up not as a Hebrew, but in the comforts of Egyptian society. In the eyes of the daughters of Midian, Moses was perceived to be an Egyptian (Exodus 2:19). Freud wrote that for three weeks in Rome he made daily visits to Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses, studying it, measuring it and sketching it. (Rice, 124) One does not need to be a psychoanalyst to speculate as to why the assimilated Freud was so drawn to the Egyptian dimension of Moses, always, but especially at the end of his life.

And Moses wasn’t just any Egyptian. Depending on how you look at it, he was a son, grandson or adopted child in the house of Pharaoh. Freud reasons that Moses’ life follows classic mythological structures – a child filled with great promise is born into a dangerous circumstance. Saved from death, he will rediscover his parentage, wreak vengeance on his father and, recognized by his people, attain fame and greatness. The parallels, though not exact, are close enough to bring into relief a critical aspect of Moses’ story that though sit in plain sight – is often missed or dismissed. The story of the Exodus is not just the story of the liberation of a people, or the fulfillment of a long-standing Divine promise. This story is a story of one man, Moses, who, in order to fulfill his personal and national destiny, in order to resolve the complexities of his personal identity, had to confront the dominant father figure of his life – Pharaoh.

And if you read our tale as such, then so many other things comes into focus. We all know Moses resists when called on by God. No doubt his speech impediment played a part in his demurrals. But the more simple reason, which is in fact the first and final reason he provides is Pharaoh! “Mi Anokhi” Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh…?” (Exodus 3:11) God could have chosen a born slave to be the liberator of the Hebrews, an Israelite with no connection to the Egyptians. The poetry and pathos of our tale is that God didn’t. Moses is rejected by the Israelites for being Egyptian, is rejected by the Egyptians for being a Hebrew and is alive only by way of having survived the very edict of the father figure in whose household, ironically, he would be raised.   Moses lacked an answer to the most basic question of all “Mi Anokhi?” “Who am I?” It is the journey to that answer, as much as the one to the Promised Land, that stitches his story together.

As far-fetched as this reading may sound, a passing knowledge of the biblical text reveals that this father-son drama, with some modification, underlies not just the biography of Moses, but is a discernible trope throughout the Bible. In order for Abraham to become Abraham, he had to smash the idols of his father, leave home and go to the land that God would show him. Isaac, we know, would emerge from his near death experience at the hands of Abraham with a forever ruptured relationship, father and son to never speak again. Jacob needed to flee the house of his Isaac and Rebecca in order to develop into his own person – so that he could become Israel. So too Joseph would only achieve his eventual and intended purpose by being cast out of his father’s home into Egypt. Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Ruth – all of them rebel, leave or are sent away from the households of their origin. Even Adam and Eve, one could argue, would only achieve the fullness of their humanity by way of leaving the Garden of their Divine parent.

None of these heroes and heroines are who they are because they stayed put and towed the line of the prior generation. As Freud explained, “A hero is someone who has the courage to rebel against his father and has in the end victoriously overcome him.” The Moses – Pharaoh relationship is more complicated than others, but it is entirely consistent with the broader biblical pattern. Like those who preceded him, like those who would follow, Moses fulfills his personal destiny by way of differentiating himself from the very household that gave him life in the first place.

According to our tradition, there is no mitzvah more important than honoring one’s parents, but it is a mitzvah that exists alongside our shared search for autonomy. As important as the influence of our parents may be, it is those moments when our choices differ or run counter to their counsel that has makes us who we are. In the successes we enjoy, in the mistakes we make, it is only by way of differentiating ourselves from our households of origin that our identities actually takes shape. Such moments of individuation, dramatic and traumatic as they may be, are natural, healthy and ultimately, important opportunities for personal growth. We reflect back on them knowing that it was those moments, not the moments we acquiesced, that have made us who we are. It is a cycle, explains Freud, that can yield a soft landing.

The rebellions of adolescence in which a person seeks to be everything a parent is not are often followed by an adulthood in which a person manifests the very characteristics of the parent that had been previously condemned and rejected (Rice, 178). It is not just Moses, or for that matter, Luke Skywalker who need to confront their households of origin in order to arrive at their true selves. Everyone needs to understand and embrace our identities as both “extensions of” and “reactions to” that which came before. Ledor Vador does not mean that one generation parrots the behaviors of the one that came before. Ledor Vador means that each generation learns from the prior one and is extended the opportunity to establish its identity on its own terms.

All of which, when taken to its logical conclusion, is a thought both thrilling and very, very sobering. Because if this is the case, if this is how we understand the dynamics of identity formation, then by extension we must strap on the proverbial seatbelt for what is in store for our relationships with our own children. It is both frightening and a bit depressing to think that if we want our children, the objects of our affection, influence and dedication to fulfill our highest wish, namely, to become the fullest and most authentic expression of their true selves, then we must be willing to allow that their journeys may in fact only be achieved by way of them responding, confronting and perhaps rejecting the very life that we spend so much time seeking to impress upon them. And while we hope that one day they will return to the proverbial nest – such an outcome is far from guaranteed.

And so I savored every moment watching those old movies with my children, scratching their backs, hoping then, as always, that they would come to share my enthusiasm for the things I love so. Every parent understands the impossible wish to freeze time. I am well aware that one day in the not too distant future, the space between me and my child may grow to be far greater than what the length of one father’s outstretched arm can traverse. One day they too will need to differentiate themselves, to individuate and establish their autonomy. I can tell you right now, I won’t like it, not one bit, and the knowledge that I am not the first to experience this process won’t make it any easier. I suppose I will what I have to do, what everyone has to do. Let my grip loosen, bite down hard and hope and pray that our bond will prove sufficiently supple, elastic and suffused with love so as to spring back to form in due time. It is, after all, both their right and my highest hope that my children walk this earth with a full-throated answer to the question of “Mi Anokhi” of “Who am I.” Should the answer to that question come at my expense — then so be it — it will be well worth the journey.

About the Author
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove, PhD is Senior Rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City. He serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly, is an officer of the New York Board of Rabbis, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of seven volumes of sermons and the editor of Jewish Theology in Our Time.
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