Chol haMoed Pesach: the love affair begins – the view from the harem

During Chol HaMoed Pesach it is traditional to read Shir HaShirim (Shir haShirim), one of the five ‘megillot’ read in synagogues over the year.  Esther is read at Purim for obvious reasons, Ruth at Shavuot, Eicha (Lamentations) at Tisha b’Av, and Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) at Succot.

While the Midrash Rabbah groups these books together (along with the Five Books of Moses), they were not written at the same time or indeed in the same way, and date from between the 5th and the 12th centuries as far as we can tell.  Purim is predicated on the Book of Esther, Tisha b’Av is clearly connected to Eicha, but the three pilgrimage festivals having their own Megillah is rather more complicated and the links between them somewhat fragile.

So why is Song of Songs read during the festival that commemorates the exodus from Egypt?

It is, quite plainly, a book of love poetry. It describes the story of a Shulamite woman who is passionately in love with a shepherd but is separated from him, having been taken into King Solomon’s harem. In an erotically charged and physically explicit series of poems she remembers the relationship she yearns for, the imagery is bucolic and sensual, using imagery of the field and the vineyards, painting a picture of intense love between two people. In a dialogue structure we hear the voice of the lover describing her and their encounters, lingering on her face, her body, her breasts and thighs and neck, her face, her smell. A third voice, that of narrator or chorus, also appears in the structure and the protagonist occasionally turns to speak to or to give advice to the daughters of Jerusalem.

The book begins with a superscription informing us that this is “Song of Songs which is Solomon’s” and so it is traditionally ascribed to King Solomon, a factor which was critical into its acceptance into the biblical canon. But this authorship is unlikely in the extreme. The language shows it to be much later than the Solomonic period – probably 3rd to 1st Century BCE; It has parallels with other love poetry of the region and with Greek poetry and it fits into the genre of women’s poetry for the harem.

Yet it was taken into the biblical canon and treated by the rabbis as an allegory of the love story between Israel and God, with Israel taking the role of the female protagonist and King Solomon standing for God. The book was clearly controversial and only the powerful and passionate defence by Rabbi Akiva in the first century ended the argument. Famously he said” Heaven forbid that anyone in Israel would ever dispute the sacredness of Shir HaShirim for the whole world is not worth the day on which Shir Hashirim was given to Israel;  all of the Writings are kodesh (“holy”) but Shir Hashirim is kodesh kodashim (“holy of holies”).

Quite why he defends it so robustly, or why he plays on the name with the idea of holiness (kodesh kodashim) is left in history, but it has the effect of reframing how we read this book so fully that the voice of the woman is all but muted, the physicality and comfort with her emotions and desires are practically erased, and the book is taken into the men’s domain of ‘holiness’ and of the patriarchal God, and the religiousness of the woman and of women in general is diminished to the point of invisibility.

This is a book that speaks of the power of love through the voice of a woman. It bespeaks young and untested love, the intense first love that nothing ever quite matches again.  One can see why it fits Pesach which happens in the springtime when all the animals and birds are coming out of a long winter and going through their mating rituals prior to settling down. One can see how it fits into the first love of the Exodus from Egypt, when the beloved can change the world for their lover, in this case quite literally. Nothing bad has happened yet, no quarrels, no golden calf, no element of falling short of the mark, the beloved can do no wrong and as yet is untainted by doubt.

Yet having been appropriated for the patriarchal view of covenantal religion it is easy to miss that this book is women’s religious literature, that Solomon is not the desired or the lover, but instead represents a disruption to the older, earlier love that is both more pastoral and more prosaic. Religion in the hands of men created a structure of ritual purity, a hierarchy and a priesthood who ministered in mysterious inner sanctums where no one could see or could enter. Religion in the hands of women was more nature based, more in tune with the rhythms of the body, focused on the creation of new life and the dwindling of energies as life diminishes. It is no accident that there were women in the liminal space at the doorway before the tent of meeting, performing their poetry and songs, welcoming the bringer of the sacrifice and facilitating their leaving the ritual. It is no accident that it is women who mark important events with song – there are more women’s songs in bible than men’s by far. Women from Deborah to Jephthah’s daughter, from Hannah to Miriam, sing across the boundaries of events.

I think that Rabbi Akiva was right when he says that this book is so holy, but probably not for the reasons he gives. It is holy because it records the religious expression of women, it is forthright and unashamed about the physical space that women take up, and while written from an inner world of the harem it reminds the reader that the author is well aware of the outer world and all its gifts. The voice of the woman is equal to that of the man in this book, it is ideal in that it takes us back to the first story of Creation and the simultaneous formation of men and women.  It can bespeak the love affair between God and Israel in the sense that a truly matched couple in love must not have a power dynamic where one is so much greater than the other – in this love affair God enters our world as lover not as sovereign. There is much eye contact and kissing in the poetry, it is a relationship where both participants give and receive equally.

I fear that the book which reflects the spirituality of women has been so reframed and reinterpreted that it is almost heretical to read it in what I believe was its original voice. It seems to be no coincidence that the mangled punning of Shmuel to alter the beautiful phrase from this book “…har’ini et mar’ayich, hashmini et kolech, ki kolech arev umarech naveh” – “show me your countenance, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet and your countenance is pleasant” is made to read instead “kol b’ishah ervah” the voice of a woman is nakedness/sexuality. (BT Berachot 24) and then offered as a proof that women’s voices should not be heard.

Did he choose the verse from the very book of women’s voices singing in public space to try to mute that very voice from discourse as a deliberate act in order to add insult to injury? To assert the patriarchal norms and taking up of all public space for masculine voices in order to silence any other way of worship?  Is this the first attempt in recorded history of mansplaining?

Whatever the process, for a long time the voice of women in religious worship and religious relationship has been quiet, a whisper, the voice of slender silence. Yet there are hints throughout our tradition that the voice is still speaking – the bat kol, literally the daughter of the voice, is a rabbinic term for communication from the divine.

The book ends with a plea for the voice to continue to be heard: “You who dwell n the gardens, the companions listen out for your voice: Cause me to hear it. Make haste my beloved” (8:13,14)

There is another reason that shir hashirim is read on Pesach, the great festival of our liberation, our freedom from oppression, the fulfilled desire of the Israelites to be able to worship their God in their own way – it is a reminder that the voices of women in Judaism are still struggling to be heard, still searching for a space in the discourse, still asserting viewpoints that are seen as less valid or less important or less authoritative. We have not yet achieved our liberation within the Jewish tradition. But our voices will continue to sing, to speak, to shape the world we see and to counter and add counterpoint to the other voices heard so loudly in our tradition.

 

 

 

Shifra & Puah, midwives of our history. Parashat Shemot names some strong women without whom Moses would not have survived.

After a dearth of women in the last sidra, the beginning of the book of Exodus simply teems with them.  Many are unnamed and described only in their relationship to men : We meet the daughter of the tribe of Levi who marries a man of Levi at the beginning of Chapter 2. In the dangerous world of a Pharaoh determined to suppress the Israelite population by killing every male child not only has a baby but hides him for three months, before making a vessel of bulrushes and placing the child in it to be caught in the reeds at the river’s edge.

We meet the sister of this child who watches to see what will happen.  She observes  the daughter of Pharaoh who comes with her maids to bathe in the river. Seeing the little vessel  she sends one maid to fetch it and on finding  the baby expresses compassion for him. The sister comes from her hiding place and suggests to the Pharaoh’s daughter that she can find a wet-nurse.  On gaining approval for this suggestion the sister calls the child’s mother who agrees to nurse the child in exchange for money from the Pharaoh’s daughter.

The baby is the centre of the story here, but there are three women who contrive to save his life, two of whom we will later learn are Yocheved his mother and Miriam his sister. The daughter of Pharaoh remains anonymous.

Once the baby is grown, he is brought back to the daughter of Pharaoh who names him Moses, because, bible reports, “ I drew him out of the water”.  While we may know that the blood relatives of the baby are present, at this moment there is a formal adoption of the child into the Egyptian fold.

The next thing we know is that Moses, having killed an Egyptian taskmaster  for hurting an Israelite man, is fleeing for his life from the anger of Pharaoh, and now we meet seven more unidentified women – the seven daughters of Reuel, priest of Midian.

One of these women will shortly be named as she is given to Moses for a wife – Zipporah. And Zipporah gives birth to a boy, Gershom, named for Moses’ alienation: ‘I have been a stranger in a strange land.‘ It seems that Moses does not circumcise his son or bring him into the brit/covenant of Abraham, either because this is unknown to him or because his alienation extends to his relationship with the Israelites. When, after his meeting with God in the wilderness, he returns to Egypt to confront Pharaoh and demand the release of the Hebrews, his life is once again in danger, it is Zipporah who saves him. In an obscure passage “God met him and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it as his feet, and she said ‘surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me”. So God let him alone, and she said “A bridegroom of blood in regard to circumcision”

Two more figures make up the set of women in this passage who surround and support Moses – the midwives Shifra and Puah.

Shifra and Puah are midwives in Egypt. They are therefore at the cutting-edge of the Royal decree to ensure that all the Hebrew baby boys are murdered at birth.  The survival of the Israelite people is dependent on their actions. Shifra and Puah disobey the Royal decree, because , the text tells us, they feared/revered God. When called to account by Pharaoh this is not what they tell him, instead they say the Hebrew women are like animals (חָיוֹת) and before the midwives can get to them they have already delivered their babies. The narrator then tells us that  “God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied, and waxed very mighty. And it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, that God made households  בָּתִּים for them” – a reference to both material goods and to children.

The story (and the chapter) ends with Pharoah’s decree repeated, but this time he broadens his audience from the midwives to the whole people: And Pharaoh charged all his people, saying: ‘Every son that is born you shall cast into the river, and every daughter you shall save alive” (1:22).  While he does not challenge the midwives’ version of the story he extends the diktat to all of the people.

So who are these women who pivot our history so decisively and so bravely?

While the Masoretic tradition assumes that they are themselves Hebrew women, this is by no means clear.  Their names are understood as more likely to be Semitic than Egyptian. Shifra (from the root שפר) means something along the lines of beauty/clarity but the root also gives us the noun “shofar” the horn that is blown to call to attention. The name Puah is likely also to mean to shine/beauty but neither of these names is easy to translate or to mine meaning from – or even identity – from.

The Talmud tells us “Rav and Shmuel [interpreted the verse העבריות למילדות ] One said: a woman and her daughter, and one said: a woman and her mother in-law. He who said a woman and a daughter: they were Yocheved and Miriam. He who said a women and her mother in law: they were  Yocheved and Elisheva.” (BT Sotah 11b)

From this interpretation emerged all the midrashim and commentary (and Masoretic vocalisation) that Shifra and Puah were both Hebrew women and of the family of Moses.

But the interpretation conflicts both with what the text tells us and with the emotional ‘sense’ of the piece. Would Pharaoh really ask Hebrew women to murder the baby boys of their fellow women?  Surely this is a task he would entrust to women from another ethnic identity? And when the midwives explain to Pharaoh why they are not fulfilling his order, they talk about the Hebrew women as being unlike Egyptian women, saying they are ‘as animals’. There is no sense that either they or Pharaoh are doing anything other than seeing the Hebrew women as ‘other’ than, and less than them – the Egyptians.

And what about the information that God dealt well with the midwives and rewarded them [with households]? From everything else we know about Miriam and Yocheved, they were not rewarded materially, nor did they become the heads of households. The correlation simply does not ring true.

So why does the tradition speak of Shifra and Puah as being not only not Egyptian women who revered God, but also tries to identify them with the Hebrew women who protected Moses’ life?

From a modern perspective we need to ask  why the tradition chooses to narrow down how the text is read so that named and autonomous Egyptian women become Hebrew women whose introduction to us is only in relation to the men. And also we need to question the erasure of the real identity of Shifra and Puah as Egyptian women who revere God and who choose to serve God and rebel against the Pharaoh from their own belief systems and through their own agency.

The text of the Hebrew bible – at least the consonants of the Hebrew bible, was agreed upon by the second century CE. But the vowels of that text – which could dramatically alter meaning – were not agreed upon at that time. It took the work of the ba’alei ha’mesorah, groups of scholarly scribes working from about the 7th to the 10th century CE to finally standardise the grammar of the text – its vowels, the breaks (verses and paragraphs), the accenting/cantillation marks.

This is important because the identity of the women as either Hebrew or Egyptian relies on the vocalisation of the letters of the two words        למילדות.   העבריות    Depending on the vowels we can either read the words as “to the Hebrew midwives” or as “to the midwives of the Hebrew women” (grammatical point – whether there is a patach under the lamed and a dagesh in the mem or a chirik under the lamed and no dagesh)

There are other texts which operate on the vocalisation of the text as “midwives of the Hebrew women” – ie that understand Shifra and Puah to be Egyptian. The Septuagint, for example, the translation of the Hebrew bible into Greek which was completed in the 3rd Century understands the text this way. Josephus in his “Antiquities” (1st Century) describes the women as Egyptian midwives who served the Hebrew women. Some other biblical commentators also understand the text to mean that the women were Egyptian (eg Abarbanel, Judah heHasid). Most interestingly there are fragments of texts which specifically name Shifra and Puah as Egyptian “righteous women who converted to Judaism” (Yalkut Shimoni does so (@13th Century), and there is a fragment from the Cairo genizah (@10th Century) which also lists Shifra and Puah as righteous gentile women who helped the Israelite people and who revered God.

Since the Masoretes vocalised the text to make the midwives Hebrew women, and Rashi follows the tradition from BT  Sotah we find ourselves corralled to seeing them not as brave Egyptian women who followed their consciences and put their faith in God, but as Hebrew women doing exactly what we would expect them to do, and indeed see them as the sister and mother of Moses whose function was entirely about protecting him as an infant.

Shifra and Puah, two brave women who stood up against the powers in their country, who saw human beings where the Pharaoh saw a population of migrants threatening his country, who revered God and acted both morally and with compassion, remind us that we are not alone as Jews. Through them and through others like them we see that God is not just ‘ours’, but is a universal God with whom we Jews have a particular relationship (as other have a particular, and different relationship). Shifra and Puah, whose names describe beauty, are also women who radiate morality and who call us to arms, to fight for what is right.

So why was the agency of two righteous gentile women erased in this way? Because they were foreign? Because they were women? Because they were necessary to Moses’ survival and pivotal in the narrative arc? Because they took risks and made their own decisions against the power of the Pharaoh?

Is the erasure of their identities and their active choices that changed our history forever  down to conspiracy or to accident?  I leave the reader to decide.

Parashat Shemot: the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing it.

ottenstein cemetery

Picture of Jewish Cemetery, Ottenstein: Rothschild family cemetery

 

One of the signs of reaching middle age is an interest in family history, as the past begins to assume an importance it didn’t have before and we want to know more about from where we came in order to pass on a strong link to the next generations.
    The book of Exodus begins with a brief genealogy and also retells the foundational story of the family as the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob are given to us once more, along with a reminder that this one man had 70 immediate descendants – 70 being a combination of two perfect numbers (7 and 10) and so showing a completeness to his life as a patriarch.
    But as quickly as the people of Israel increased and multiplied in Egypt, tragedy struck, a new king arose who saw them not as an asset to the community but as a threat, and so organised the legalised oppression of these people. Apparently determined not to be destroyed by this subjugation the Israelites continued to have many children and the pharaoh’s response was to take his cruelty down to the newborn children, by having every male child murdered at birth.  Yet the Hebrew midwives who were instructed to do this disobeyed, and playing upon the stereotype of the Israelite women being different from local women, told Pharaoh that they could not kill the newborn boys as they were born so quickly. And so the oppression was taken from the hands of the officials and given into the hands of the people – every boy born to the Hebrews should be thrown into the river.
      As a family history it is painful reading. Even though we know the ending, (for here we are about three millennia later still thriving), to know what our early family had to endure is excruciating. I reacently read  the memoirs of another family member, Ephraim Rothschild who lived in the Hannover area and who wrote his family history over the five years from his 85th to his 90th birthday in 1898. The stories of illness and early deaths, of capriciously unjust authorities, of marriages and children and movements to different villages to escape limitations on numbers of Jews, of legal restrictions and consequent struggles to find ways of making a good living and educating one’s children – it is an insight into a world that I can only say I am grateful not to have been born into. And yet as I read about graduates of the Jacobson school being taken into his employment, and his doubt about what would become of the descendants of those who professed Reform Judaism, there is something of the same feeling as reading the beginning of Shemot – our ancestors could not know what their descendants would become, they could only do what was right and possible in their time and their context in order to create the best chances for their family/people/religion to continue. And they could tell their story, which would include naming the names, reminding their descendants of the familial link and the story that went right back to Sinai.
     Ephraim Rothschild and the family from which he came lived generally in small towns away from the hub of political activity for 230 years, the connection to the area ending only when my grandfather left Hannover (via Baden Baden) for Dachau in November 1938 and my teenage father left Hannover for England. Not quite the 430 years of sojourning in Egypt, but a substantial time nevertheless, and a time when the family story continued to be told and passed onto the next generations. The memoir makes clear that his main interest was his family and the family business, and while he had some criticisms of the Judaism of his time, both the conservative forces of reaction and the too radical (for him) forces of Reform, he took it upon himself to endow and run a synagogue. But he also took it upon himself to learn the new political and economic ideas, teaching himself the essence of democratic politics and national economy, even writing to Bismarck and then to the Kaiser with his ideas and recommendations.  While never taking on the authorities too far, or taking a path of outright disobedience, he chose to play as full a part as he could in improving the lot of his fellow Jews and his fellow Germans.  Living in a relative backwater was no hindrance to his taking part in life. As in the opening of of the book of Shemot, Ephraim’s memoir tells the stories and names the names, and he seems content to do his best within the context and place he found himself, keeping family and religion going to the next generations. And with the stories we find out about some of the women of the family, and how hard they worked to keep everything going.

The title of the book of Shemot (names) is usually understood to refer to the names of the sons of Jacob who came down to Egypt with him, but there are other names to be found in this sidra and there are areas where the naming of names seem to be deliberately avoided. In particular within the story leading to the birth and naming of Moses which is found in this sidra only three names are made clear – the Hebrew midwives Shifrah and Puah are named and described twice as women who “revered God”, and their civil disobedience in aiding the labouring Hebrew women is recorded in bible, as well as their divine reward which is understood by Rashi to be that they became the founders of great dynasties themselves. Yet the father of Moses and the mother of Moses are described only as coming from the tribe of Levi, the Egyptian woman who rescued him is only described as ‘bat Paro’ – a daughter or female relative of Pharaoh, and the sister who oversees the rescue as ‘his sister’. Moses himself is finally named by the daughter of Pharaoh only ten verses later when he has been weaned by his mother and returned to her in the royal household.

This naming of the God-fearing midwives, yet the deliberate non-naming – almost to the point of clumsiness in the text – of all the others around Moses’ birth and rescue reads curiously in a sidra called “Names”. Is it trying to tell us that sometimes we must stand up and put our names to our acts of justice while at other times it is better to do so in anonymity?  Certainly that thought has resonances today in a world anonymity on the net.

      Or is it trying to say that sometimes it is the story that is important and the players are merely functionaries whose naming might distract us? Or maybe that it is our relationships with each other that truly matter and not just ourselves? Or that who we really are – the essence that is caught up in our name – can only be understood in the context of who we are connected to and what we do in our lives.

     The study of one’s family history can be fun and also it can be painful as the many stories of persecution and deprivation echo down the centuries along with the names, often the same names used repeatedly so that one can no longer tell who is being remembered in the naming.  But just to get caught up in who was who is not to in any way know about them. For that one needs the stories, the way the relationships developed, the sense of what they did and the context for why they did it. And we need also to recognise the difference between knowing the name of something, and knowing something. As Richard Feynman wrote “You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird… So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing — that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”

Pesach thoughts

The story of Pesach is one of renewal. Originally it seems that there were two festivals to do with the Spring – there was Pesach which was a celebration of the new lambs, and there was Chag HaMatzah, a holiday which celebrated the first grain harvest of the year and the using up of the old. At some point, (maybe around 1250 BCE when the Exodus is said to have taken place), the two Spring festivals became one.  The verb ‘pasach’ means to jump over (the way that lambs jump about in the fields) so it became used to describe how God passed over the houses of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt and did not kill the first-born people inside. The word Matzah came to be understood as the unleavened bread that was eaten because of the haste of the departure of the Hebrews from Egypt.  As ever, Judaism is adept at taking what already exists in the ritual lexicon and reinterpreting it, renewing it in order to bring about a different significance and meaning.

Pesach was a primarily a festival which rejoices in the Springtime and the hope of renewal and revitalisation it brings. It is also now an historical festival, marking the real beginnings of the Jewish people, something that will find its culmination in Shavuot. And Pesach is also a festival dedicated to ideological and the spiritual renewal– it is a festival of freedom, a promise and foretaste of ultimate redemption.

With Pesach and the Spring we are at a new beginning. The physical world is waking up and there is a sense of possibility. As Pesach approaches we deep clean our homes, removing the hametz – the old and fermented goods. The process symbolises a kind of spiritual new beginning, the removal of the stale from our lives and the opportunity to start again. 

Preparation for Pesach is a very physical activity, from Purim onwards we carry on an extreme version of spring cleaning, doing what used to called in my Yorkshire childhood ‘bottoming’ (as in I’ll get to the bottom of that wardrobe / pile of papers / overstuffed kitchen drawer). The sheer upheaval is enough to make one tired, yet it also forces a sort of internal reflection.  While making free with the bleach and the various cleansers the mind can sort of disengage and has time to think.  In fact it is not unlike the way prayer works – as the mouth and body follow the prescribed words and choreography of the siddur, the mind finds itself free to range further.

But Pesach isn’t only about the physical renewal nor the spiritual replenishment it brings – Pesach requires us to locate ourselves in our ancient narrative, to tell our story once more and place ourselves within it. To make certain our children are also listening and hearing it and taking it for themselves. Hence the rituals around the Seder, many of which are designed to attract the children, to pique their interest and draw them in. Without the telling of the story and the conversation about it that follows, Pesach is simply a Springtime ritual in order to celebrate the new agricultural year that follows the cold and forbidding winters. Without the discussion and dialogue about what the story is teaching us about freedom then and now, we are simply following an empty ritual.

 A gloss on the word Pesach teaches that besides being the verb for jumping over, it can be divided into two Hebrew words – ‘peh’ meaning mouth, and ‘sach’ meaning talking or conversation. The whole point of Pesach is to talk, to tell, to sing, to describe, to discuss, to argue examine and consider what the meaning is for us now. If we celebrate only with ritual, if we simply plonk ourselves down at the nearest Seder and work our way through the haggadah, we will be doing this most powerful of festivals a disservice. Pesach, the preparation time leading up to it, and the Seder itself all sanction conversation between the generations – to tell the story again and again, to understand what it means in our day and age. So as we prepare the ritual items for Seder, we invite friends and family to join us in the retelling of the haggadah , and merge the stories of springtime lambing and first grains with the stories of exodus from Egypt and God’s dramatic re-entry into our history. We ask ourselves the contemporary meaning of our story. We talk to each other about what we each think about freedom, what we see in the world,  and we consider what we can do about what we see. That is surely worth all the work in preparation for the festival, and it gives us our work for the year to come.

Parashat Bo

The sidra opens with a challenge – the word we use to name this narrative – Bo. God is saying to Moses “Come to Pharaoh. I have made him and his advisors stubborn in order to demonstrate my miraculous signs among them. And so you may tell in the ears of your son, and of your son’s son, what I have wrought upon Egypt, and My signs which I have done among them; that you may know that I am the Eternal.’”

In Hebrew there are two different verbs – la’lechet which means ‘to go’ and which was the imperative used when God first met Abraham – Lech Lecha! And la’vo meaning ‘to come’ which is the verb used here to Moses. Come to Pharaoh!

But at the end of the sidra last week, Moses was outside the city – so from the usage of this verb we can only understand that while Moses was outside and away from Pharaoh, God was within, and close to Pharaoh.

The thirteenth century French commentator, Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoach, noted this strange usage, and suggested that God was saying that when Moses went to Pharaoh, God would be there with him – in effect he would not be alone as he faced the increasingly paranoid and terrifying king.  This is a lovely reassurance to Moses, but it begs the question – why at this point does Moses need the reassurance? Is he in doubt that God can do what is promised? Does he fear that he will be led into a trap from which there is no escape?

Moses knows from later in the same verse, that God has hardened the heart of Pharaoh yet again. Maybe he was holding on to the hope that Pharaoh would finally yield to the wishes of his advisors, that he would understand that he was in a battle he could not win. But God has put paid to that hope – Pharaoh would, for certain, rebuff him. And this too would be part of God’s plan.

How difficult must it have been for Moses to go through with this. How much must he have wanted God to be actively present alongside him. And then the plagues themselves when they came were all of them about darkness, isolation and terror. As we feel today feel conflicted about God strengthening Pharaoh’s resolve to take the battle between them to the ultimate conclusion, how much more so must Moses have felt, a frightened human being shuttling between the two of them?

An ancient battle is being played out – between Good and Evil, between light and dark. What is different in this rendition of the mythology is that human beings are part of the thread of the narrative, that we must witness and understand what it is we see, we must go on to remember and to tell what we saw and understood.

Those first two verses set the scene ““Come to Pharaoh. I have made him and his advisors stubborn in order to demonstrate my miraculous signs among them. And so you may tell in the ears of your child, and of your children’s children, what I have done to Egypt, and My signs which I have done among them; that you may know that I am the Eternal.’”

The final element of the battle is to happen now. And all must know for all time from the process of this battle that God is the one and only and Eternal God.

The  parashah goes on to recount the events leading up to the final night, when the Israelites prepared for their departure from Egypt, and the instructions given to ensure that this core event in our history will be recorded forever in the collective memory of the Jewish people.

The events leading up to and surrounding the exodus from Egypt are embedded in our narrative in so many ways – Kiddush at Shabbat, the Amidah, the Seder, the Hallel. These are signs and signals for us to respond to, we  must consciously understand what we are doing, and tell and retell the narrative to ourselves and others in every generation. All of this so that we may never forget nor misunderstand that God is God.

There are two big themes in Judaism – there is the universalistic one of the Creation of the World and the Creator of all Things who is God of all people;  And there is the particularistic one of the Exodus from Egypt and the particular relationship we Jews have with God. All of our tradition and theology is balanced upon these two major events, the universal and the particular, the creation and the exodus, the whole and the part, the community and the individual.  We create actions and rituals, stories and prayers, all in order to remember that the Eternal is our God, and everything flows from that remembering. But in the smaller and particularistic scale our activity also reminds us that each of us has a consciousness and lives a life of moment and value, and we should not take any part of that for granted.  Each of us makes a contribution, each of us is a witness and our stories weave into the narrative to strengthen and form it.

If we choose not to be part of the story, then everything is weakened because of that choice. We are in it together, a people, a community, who share our narrative and understanding.  We may fear, we may doubt, we may have good reason for both the doubt and the fear. But like Moses, when we take our part in the narrative we should remember the choice of verb used by God – “come – be with Me, I will be with you, you are not alone in this however terrifying it looks”, rather than the verb used in the imperative to Abraham – Go for yourself. 

 In the two imperatives that God uses to force movement, we have moved from the individual to the communal journey. We are no longer alone. However difficult we might find God to be, we have each other and we have the reassurance of our history that however dark it seems to be, the dawn will come.
 

parashat Shemot

The book of Exodus begins with race hatred, forced slavery, infanticide, adult murder, and a fugitive hero. The runaway Moses finds comfort in the desert with the family of Jethro a priest of Midian, whose daughters were themselves being ill-treated by some itinerant shepherds while trying to draw water for their flock. In a moment of high romance Moses single-handedly stood up the shepherds and helped the girls draw the water they needed, and so was taken into the family and looked after, marrying Zipporah and fathering two sons. 

It could have happened that the story of Moses effectively ended here – keeping the flock of Jethro, a much appreciated son in law for a man with seven daughters – but for the event that followed. While out one day with the sheep, nowhere very special, Moses noticed a bush that burned with fire yet was not consumed by it. Bush fires can’t have been all that uncommon in the dry hot desert. Yet Moses watched this one for enough time to recognise that it was unusual. And once he recognised that something else was happening, so it was that God spoke to him, telling him that the cry of the Israelites had reached the heavens, that God was going to re-enter history and rescue the people of Israel from the Egyptians and take them back to their own land, and that Moses was going to be his agent, speaking both to Pharaoh and to the Jews.

All very dramatic. All rather terrifying – particularly to the lone boy who had fled Egypt from a murder charge, who had grown up in an Egyptian Royal Household, who was living at the whim of others. How was he to believe it was God talking to him? How was he to convince others that God had spoken? How could he face a return to Egypt to try to persuade a Pharaoh he already knew would not believe him, to let the Hebrew slaves go?

Small wonder that Moses doubts. And demurs. And really doesn’t want to get involved. Even with the addition of two more signs – a stick that turns into a serpent, a hand that becomes leprously white then healthily pink – and the promise of more, Moses is reluctant. Not me – I’m not very articulate…

It is, when you think about it, a very odd meeting. Where has God been all these years? Was God around but simply not noticed?

Why choose a bush in the wilderness in which to make a statement? Why choose someone so naïve and young and frightened and just a little bit anxious, someone from the very fringes of the community, someone who had been given away because being within the community seemed just too dangerous? Just what was it in Moses that God recognised as being the necessary characteristic for leadership? Just what was it at the bush that Moses stopped to ponder – what really did he see and understand?

Many years ago my teacher Jonathan Magonet asked – how long would you have to look at a bonfire before you realised it wasn’t actually burning up? It was an illuminating question. Moses must have demonstrated an ability to watch, to focus, to be patient, to contemplate the unimaginable, for him to have noticed that the burning bush wasn’t actually being consumed.

More even than the willingness to take the time, more even than the ability to focus and to observe, I think it is the ability to imagine the indescribable that marks out Moses for leadership. He was able to think differently, to see in the normal and everyday occurrences something special and manifestly other, beyond what simply is. It is, it think no surprise that when asked for the name of the divinity that Moses must pass on to the people the name is “ehyeh asher ehyeh” “I will be whatever I will be.”

At the beginning of the book of Exodus, we see Moses not as the great leader of rabbinic tradition – we see a young and fragile man, emotional, dislocated, upstanding, and fearful. We see someone who could be great – he has demonstrated his sense of moral outrage, his willingness to act out his values, his affinity with his people, his support of the daughters of Jethro against injustice. And we see someone who could be a bit of a nebbish – full of doubts, a little bit unclear as to his identity, afraid, sensing himself as a continual outsider, with no obvious vision for himself or his future. He is someone we can recognise in our modern context.

True leadership requires not only vision, motivation, focus, and passion, it also requires someone with emotional intelligence, the ability to understand more than the current and obvious scenario, the willingness to do something not immediately clear or comprehensible to those around you. It means being rooted in the history or the culture of your place but not being held back by it, it means being open to whatever presents itself.