Exodus: A Synopsis

Then Israel entered Egypt…
— Psalms 105:23

The story of the Exodus dots the Hebrew Bible. One of its most fascinating appearances is in Psalm 105, a brief overview of Israelite history from Abraham onwards, in case you didn’t have time to read all Five Books. It is in this synopsis, that we encounter what those who lived later thought were the most salient or durable memories for our preservation. After all, a précis should give just enough relevant detail to be informative without too many specifics.

So what is the elevator speech of the Exodus? Let’s have a look at how the psalm collapses 15 chapters into 15 verses:
Then Israel entered Egypt; Jacob resided as a foreigner in the land of Ham. The Lord made his people very fruitful; he made them too numerous for their foes, whose hearts he turned to hate his people, to conspire against his servants. He sent Moses his servant, and Aaron, whom he had chosen. They performed his signs among them, his wonders in the land of Ham. He sent darkness and made the land dark— for had they not rebelled against his words? He turned their waters into blood, causing their fish to die. Their land teemed with frogs, which went up into the bedrooms of their rulers. He spoke, and there came swarms of flies, and gnats throughout their country. He turned their rain into hail, with lightning throughout their land; he struck down their vines and fig trees and shattered the trees of their country. He spoke, and the locusts came, grasshoppers without number; they ate up every green thing in their land, ate up the produce of their soil. Then he struck down all the firstborn in their land, the first-fruits of all their manhood. He brought out Israel, laden with silver and gold, and from among their tribes no one faltered. Egypt was glad when they left, because dread of Israel had fallen on them. [105:23- 38]

1)    We moved to Egypt. Our host country became our enemy.
2)    God sent Moses and Aaron to be our leaders.
3)    There were many plagues.
4)    We left with wealth.
5)    The Egyptians were relieved that we left.

Boy, the entire Seder just got a whole lot shorter. Yet there are a few details here that are missing in the original, and these make us curious about the additions. One noticeable feature is the reference to Egypt as the land of Ham. The land of what?

As it happens, the identification of Ham with Egypt is information offered in I Chronicles: “The sons of Ham: Cush, Egypt, Put and Canaan” [1:8]. This correlation also appears elsewhere in psalms: “They forgot the God who saved them, who had done great things in Egypt, miracles in the land of Ham and awesome deeds by the Red Sea” [106:21-22]. Josephus, a historian of Jewish antiquity, claimed that Ethiopians descended from Cush the son of Ham: "For of the four sons of Ham, time has not at all hurt the name of Cush; for the Ethiopians, over whom he reigned, are even at this day, both by themselves and by all men in Asia, called Cushites." [Antiquities1.6]. It would seem that Ham’s children dominated the northeast regions of Africa.

One might claim that the identification of Ham with Egypt is geographical. But it seems as if a richer interpretation awaits. Ham was one of Noah’s three sons who left the ark. As it happens, in Genesis 9, Ham saw his father Noah naked and drunk in his tent and went out to belittle Noah to his brothers. Noah awoke, startled at what his youngest son did and cursed Ham’s son. He wanted Ham to feel that the consequence of dishonoring a parent is that Ham would be dishonored by his children. Noah’s curse is specific: “The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.”  Noah’s other sons were quick to cover up their father and turn their gaze away from him. 

In this story, Noah was making an observation about his family and about humanity, the new world he was consigned to repopulate. In this new world there would continue to be evil - immorality, enmity, envy and small-mindedness – represented by one of his sons. There would be children who could be saved by a parent and still ridicule a parent. But in this new world, this behavior would be overshadowed by goodness, by children who honored and obeyed. Those who are little in spirit would become little in stature. Instead of being leaders, they would be slaves – slaves to pettiness and thoughtlessness.

In this vast epic narrative that is the story of our people, Egypt would forever be associated with slavery, a place that reduced people to suffering and, as a result, was itself to be humbled. Our small suffering people rose above our situation when we left Egypt and were commanded to bring others out of suffering as a result.  Thus, the story of Genesis is replayed on a national scale in the story of Exodus and replayed throughout history when the underdog stakes a claim for justice and goodness.

Shabbat Shalom

Too Much Noise

...be still
— Exodus 14:14

In a lovely meditation on the virtues of silence, Mother Teresa said, "We need to find God, and He cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature - trees, flowers, grass - grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence...We need silence to touch souls."
Mother Teresa was clearly not Jewish. She valued silence. We seem to be an altogether noisy and clamorous people. Perhaps this stereotype alone gives the impression that we are not as spiritual as we need to be. Contemplative moments elude us if there is too much noise. We cannot hear a whisper or a breath.
One of the great dramas of the Bible features the problem of our noise at its center. We encounter this drama in our Torah cycle reading of the week in Exodus 14. The Israelite nation, recently released from their role as slave laborers in Egypt, find themselves in a place of primal terror. Pharaoh hardened his heart and pursued the very slaves he ostensibly freed. The Israelites saw him and his minions in chariots behind them and the expanse of the Reed Sea in front of them and no solution anywhere, as we read directly in the verses:
As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn't we say to you in Egypt, 'Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians'? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!" Moses answered the people, "Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still." [Exodus 14:10-14]
In fear, the Israelites yelled and yelled. They screamed at God and at Moses with an almost indiscriminate urgency. Moses told them that the solution would not rest in their noise but in their stillness. God would fight on their behalf, as God had done in all of the previous chapters of the exodus story. Their job: be still.
It is not hard to hear in the complaints their ingratitude and short-sightedness, a problem that would trail them throughout the wilderness. But when we judge them, we do so at a comfortable remove.  I thought of our ancient sisters and brothers as I read Rabbi Daniel Feldman's comprehensive new book on speech in Jewish law: False Facts and True Rumors: Lashon HaRa in Contemporary Culture. Lashon HaRa, negative speech about others, is a mighty transgression in Jewish law. Nevertheless, permission is granted in limited situations, by the Talmud, to speak badly against a cantankerous people; in Hebrew this is rendered as "baalei mahaloket," people who love to argue or, as R. Feldman terms them, troublemakers. But R. Feldman warns that this is not a blanket dispensation. "This negative speech is only allowed for the purposes of quieting the dispute." And if one criticizes an entire group, he or she must employ certain guidelines so that the criticism does not become an ad hominim attack. According to R. Feldman, "These conditions include [that] the speaker must know the information personally, and not be relying on another; the intent must be pure; there must be no other feasible method of bringing peace; and all of the above must be carefully evaluated."
Labeling an entire people is a dangerous business. It's the spiritual equivalent of racial profiling and it can generate much misunderstanding and limit the capacity for growth and change. One must be careful in engaging this leniency to describe and condemn the behavior instead of dismissing the group and have in mind that the end goal of such labeling is to identify a behavior rather than actively disparage it.
Moses called us a stiff-necked people, as did God. This was not to trap us in this behavior but to create the conditions for self-awareness and change. Be still, Moses cautioned here, so that the miracle that was about to take place - the splitting of the sea - would be the miracle it was. Too much noise prevents us from hearing and can also prevent us from seeing that which is wonder-full and awe-inspiring. And yet, although Moses told the people to be still, God got the last word. "Then the Lord said to Moses, 'Why are you crying out to me? Speak to the Israelites and go'" [14:15].
 Be quiet. Yes. Jump. Yes.

Revisiting History and Memory

What does this mean to you?...
— Exodus 13:14

Remember the aggravation of a he said/she said dialogue when you're in an argument? Well, The Wall Street Journal says you're not alone. Elizabeth Bernstein in her article "Honey, You Never Said..." shares fascinating research on how it is that couples recall events or commitments very differently from each other. Who's right? We all want to know, but we will probably never know because there is no right. "Fights often begin with two versions of events. People tend to remember the arguments they lost."

To illustrate, Bernstein opens with a disagreement between a couple. Both agree that after compromising, Carrie told her husband Joe that he could get the arcade machine he wanted. But when he went to pick it up, he purchased two. Carrie was surprised. They hadn't talked about it. Joe claims they did. Isn't it a simple fact? No, it isn't. "How can two people have different memories of the same event? It starts with the way each person perceives the event in the first place - and how they encoded that memory," concludes psychologist Dr. Michael Ross.  

It turns out that women seem to remember more about relationship issues and their memories of them are "more vivid and detailed," possibly because women report being more emotional at the time of the argument. But before we develop a gender superiority complex, this does not mean that their memories were more accurate. You usually remember the most recent version of your story. Feelings can also change, manipulate and shape memory, especially negative ones. 

In other words, there is not one version of every story. Best to focus on the emotions associated with the argument than fight over recall, says Professor Andrew Christensen in Reconcilable Differences. This can be liberating, especially when it comes to happy facts and memories. 

We are getting ready to share our national narrative with family and friends around the Seder table. That story is dependent on memory, even if it's not first-hand. We are mandated to tell the story and relive history from four different biblical verses representing different ways that people seek out their history: either they ask, it is triggered or it is told to them: 

 Exodus 12:26-27:

 "And when your children ask you, 'What do you mean by this rite?' you shall say, 'It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, because he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians but saved you houses.'"  

Exodus 13:8:

"And you shall explain to your son on that day, 'It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.'"  

Exodus 13:14

"And when, in time to come, your son asks you, saying, 'What does this mean to you?' you shall say to him, 'It was with a mighty hand that the Lord brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage.'"  

Deuteronomy 6:20

"When in time your children ask you, 'What do the decrees, laws and rules mean that the Lord our God has enjoined upon you?' you shall say to your children, 'We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand.'"  

These verses form the spinal cord for the famous Four Sons portion of the Haggada. The sages of old could not understand why the Torah, with its economy of language, would include four verses to get you to share the exodus with the next generation. Their conclusion: there are four different learners, and each needs to know the story. If so, then we have to be generous story-tellers with the capacity for differentiated learning at the table.

But perhaps this isn't the only reasonable interpretation of these multiple commands to do the same thing. You can have one child who remembers a story four different ways depending on the vantage point and the situation. We are often called upon to share differing versions of what we experienced. This is why being a witness is a sacred job. You cannot limit the way the imagination weaves together facts.

What you can do is tell a story with lots of positive energy and - as the quote above suggests - in a way that amplifies mood and meaning so that the memory will last longer and be more transformative. "What does this mean to you?" suggests the personal relevance of the story to everyone who hears it. We tell the same story in different ways all of the time. We may eventually settle on a consistent narrative and then adapt the core aspects to an audience; the audience also change the story. Our Haggadah presses us to read more deeply into the exodus and its meanings that will subsequently allow myriad other stories to unfold. 

What does it all mean to you?

Shabbat Shalom