When I helped guide a young Christian business associate through a spiritual crisis, little did we know that it would result in a life-altering book. The Weight of Gold brings out the Torah’s universal messages for personal growth and social justice, showing that the Torah is indeed the User’s Guide to the human soul. Follow this blog each week for new insights into this ancient text. The Weight of Gold – now available. Contact the author.
I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.
– Billy Taylor
This week we embark on reading the Book of Exodus. This first portion plunges us right into the action, from Pharaoh’s decision to oppress the Israelites, to Moses’ returning to Egypt as the appointed leader of a nation. Genesis provides an archetypal grounding for the Bible, laying out distinct personality types and their qualities. Exodus is about revelation; what happens to both an individual and society that experiences a confrontation with the Divine.
To understand the context in which Moses emerges as a leader, let’s look at the negative traits which some of the main actors in Genesis represent. This is not to denigrate the spiritual ideals or religious messages these characters, at their best, represent, but to see what we can learn by viewing them as archetypal personality types.
Abraham exemplifies what can happen when excessive good intentions go wrong. His enthusiastic embrace of God estranges him from his family. On the one hand, God favors him precisely because (Gen. 18:19) “… he will command teach his children and his household after him to keep God’s way, doing charity and justice…” On the other, Abraham becomes captive to that relationship, at the expense of “his household” – a sort of spiritual Stockholm Syndrome. He backs down from holding God to absolute standards of justice, allowing God to walk away from the negotiation about Sodom. And he zealously accepts God’s command to sacrifice Isaac. Can it be that this moral paragon will slaughter his own son – and will then say, “I was just following orders”?
Isaac experiences firsthand the full horror of human behavior at its most extreme. His own father binds him, lays him on a funeral pyre and prepares to slit his throat, looking him in the eye all the while. The text explicitly says angels call to Abraham (Gen. 22:11-18.) Applying the principle that the Bible does not waste words, it is possible that Isaac may not have heard the angels telling his father to stop, telling Abraham that he has withstood God’s test, that his willingness to slay his own son is proof of his dedication to God, and that henceforth Abraham’s name will be a blessing for all humanity. Isaac returns to explore his father’s legacy, digging anew the wells that Abraham’s enemies filled in. He finally goes on to dig his own wells, but his “return to the scene of the crime” illustrates how difficult it is to reconcile or force closure with our past.
In order to grow into adulthood, we need to confront the very worst that is within us. In order to know how to deal with the evil that surrounds us, we need to see and experience and acknowledge that the same propensity for evil dwells within us. The book Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning follows a group of upstanding German citizens in early middle age – lawyers, pharmacists, accountants – who were drafted as policemen during WWII. Too old to be sent to the front, they were hired for the quieter tasks of walking the local beat. Within a short time, they were sent into Jewish villages and towns across Poland where they were ordered to slaughter the inhabitants at close range – often by bayonet, to save bullets – showering themselves with spurting blood. The men balked at first, but quickly came round, even as they suffered headaches and nightmares. Their commanders told them they did not have to participate, that they were free to go back to Germany. Only one or two actually left. Most stayed on, not because they relished the task – which they did not – and not because they believed in what they were doing, because they did not. But they stayed in order not to abandon their comrades to this dirty work. We dare not think such a thing could not happen to us. Yet it is only once we acknowledge that it very well could happen to us that we are on the path to actually preventing it.
(I was greatly honored when, shortly after arriving in Israel, I was called upon to officiate at the funeral of one of the few survivors of the village of Jozefow, where the police unit undertook their first mass killing. Rachel was laid to rest in a cemetery just outside Jerusalem. Yes, these horrors really happened. As the last survivors on both sides are dying off, the world has put the events of the Holocaust forcefully out of mind. And of course, forgetting past horrors make it that much more likely that they will recur – with vastly improved technology.)
Jacob engages in more garden-variety evil – the kind we so often encounter in our daily lives. Exactly the kind which rarely strikes us as being actually evil, and so we engage in it ourselves. We are uncomfortable at first, but we quickly get over it.
Jacob sees an opportunity to get what his older brother has. He completes the task that Abel merely stumbled into, actually securing the position of the firstborn and the birthright. He then colludes with his mother to lie to his father and completes the task by stealing the blessing. When he returns two decades later, Jacob tricks his brother once again, saying he will meet up with him, then heading off in a different direction.
Alone among the Patriarchs, it is Jacob who finally confronts his own demons in a wrestling match in the dead of night. It is only once we have grappled with our dark side – a more obvious metaphor would be hard to come by – that we can move on in life. After the fight, the mysterious man blesses Jacob saying, “You have struggled with God and with man, and you were able.” As we have seen, the important thing is not winning, but being able to stay in the contest. The man changes his name from Jacob to Israel, meaning, “he wrestles with God.” Jacob – “he catches at the heel,” and perhaps even “he delays” – is not able to return to Canaan. Now, as Israel, he is prepared to move forward and enter the Promised Land.
Uniquely in this narrative, God does not speak or appear to Joseph at all – although Joseph routinely invokes God to outsiders. The Torah insists that what God wants is nothing less than full partnership with humanity. Thus we must be able to stand on our own. Starting from a complete and open dialogue with Abraham, God has weaned the patriarchs off the Divine Presence bit by bit, until Joseph was left to fly solo. This imagery will find expression in the Exodus narrative, embodied for example in the imagery of Moses’ staff.
Moses is raised by a conspiracy of mother figures, but has no father. (His biological father is mentioned only once, and not in his birth narrative.) Because of Pharaoh’s decree that all male babies be drowned, Moses’ mother places him in a basket and sets him afloat on the Nile. His sister runs alongside, keeping watch, and is nearby when Pharaoh’s daughter fishes him from the river. The girl brings their own mother to serve as wet-nurse, and Pharaoh’s daughter raises Moses as her own son.
Moses grows and goes out into the world where he sees an Egyptian beating an Israelite. Without a word, Moses strikes the Egyptian dead. The next day he sees two Israelites fighting and asks, “Why are you hitting your fellow?” The Israelite responds, “Do you mean to kill me as you did to the Egyptian?” Then, (2:15) “When Pharaoh heard about this matter, he tried to kill Moses.” The structure of the verses – with the additional words “this matter” – suggests that Pharaoh was angry, not at Moses over killing the Egyptian, but about Moses’ exchange with the Israelites. Moses learned Hebrew from his mother and he knows he is an Israelite, despite having grown up in the palace, “… he went out to his brothers and he saw their burdens…”
“This matter” that enrages Pharaoh is Moses’ attempt to reconcile between Israelites. Moses is seeking to instill a group identity and to institute a legalistic process, to create a sense of social cohesiveness and responsibility. The two Israelite men have greater cause to stand together than to fight one another. Moses presents exactly the threat Pharaoh foresaw when he ordered the Israelites enslaved. That of a fifth column. “… if a war comes, [the Israelites] will join with our enemies and fight against us and rise up from within our midst.”
Moses flees to the land of Midian where he intervenes to protect a group of sisters from the local shepherds. As pointed out by one of the great Torah teachers of the 20th century, Nehama Leibowitz, Moses is staunchly on the side of justice. He exacts summary justice when only force will succeed; he seeks to create solidarity between those who share a common plight and a common identity; and intervenes to defend the weak against the strong. Notably, as Leibowitz observes, he intervenes whether or not the injustice involves Israelites.
Moses marries one of the Midianite sisters whom he protected. When their son is born, Moses names him Gershom – meaning “a stranger there” – because, says Moses, “I have been a stranger in a foreign land.” Jacob had to correct the names Joseph gave his sons, teaching Joseph that you can’t forget where you came from. Moses gives his son a name that clearly ties him to the experience of exile. Moses is twice an exile: born in Egypt, in exile from the ancestral home in Canaan, and now exiled even from Egypt. Despite having lived forty years in Midian, Moses remains connected to his origins – or rather, to his estrangement. He remains a stranger in a strange land.
God now decides to intervene and save the Israelites. It is precisely Moses’ identification with the Israelite people and their destiny that provides the tool God needs to put into motion the next phase of the Divine plan: a leader. God approaches Moses at the burning bush for an extended job interview, but Moses insists he is not up to the task. The most telling thing he says about himself is, “I am not a man of words; I have never been…” When he first came on the scene we saw Moses as the man of action, killing the Egyptian without uttering a word. And when he tries to reason with the Israelites the next day, he is rebuffed. In Midian, again, he dives right into the fray and chases the shepherds away. Towards the end of Moses’ career we shall see this play out again, with fateful results.
Moses’ impetuosity has landed him in exile, fleeing from the royal household in which he was raised. What does it mean to be in exile?
The exodus from Egypt is the historical defining moment of the Jewish people. It will be referenced repeatedly in the Bible itself, and in rabbinic works down the ages. References to the Exodus feature centrally in the daily prayer services, and everyone is familiar with the holiday of Passover and the Seder, the celebratory meal commemorating the Exodus.
Nachmanides says the Jewish identity is forged in exodus –not the centuries of exile after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, but the experience of the Israelites after leaving Egypt. Torn from a land where they had lived for over 400 years, they wander the desert not knowing what to do with themselves. The Russian Nobel Prizewinning poet Joseph Brodsky writes that to be “exile” has two opposite meanings. The first is a verb: you are thrown out of your homeland. You then pick yourself up and forge ahead, building a new identity and a new life in your new home. The second – the fate of so many of his countrymen – is a noun, an identity, spending your days in a tragic holding pattern, mourning your past and wishing against any reasonable expectation to one day be permitted to return.
When Moses asks for God’s name, God replies, “I am,” or, “I shall be.” If God truly is everywhere, why don’t people acknowledge it? How do we make God’s presence known in the world? We do this not through preaching, but through our works. The true measure of belief is not in what we say, but in how we act. How we treat others. How we live our lives. Joseph actually taught this, constantly invoking God’s name, ascribing to God the keys to his earthly success. Similarly, it is up to us to keep God in our hearts, and to implant God in the awareness of others. And when we carry in our heart the image of God, we can’t help but respect our fellow humans – all made in God’s image. In this way we must, each of us, become a leader and a teacher to all with whom we come into contact. To do this, we need to plumb the profoundest – and scariest – depths of our souls. How can we touch the souls of others if we have not truly confronted our own?
In addition to confronting the propensity for evil within himself, Moses must lead the Israelites away from the sense of exile, from the tragic yearning to return to a past that actually never was. He must teach them to unify, to embrace a new identity and to accept reality. To stand on their own morally, to stand up for one another, to pursue justice and truth at all times, and to embrace the role God has in store for them, which is to bring God’s presence into this world that so desperately needs it.
Being chosen is a tremendous burden. But perhaps – as the Israelites are about to discover – not so much of a burden as it is to be free.
Yours for a better world.