Reflections on the main themes of the Exodus narratives

How to best tell the story? Where to begin? What in the master story speaks to one and therefore makes one speak?

In “The particulars of rapture” Avivah Zornberg identifies the main themes of the numerous narratives of the Exodus story as redemption, revelation, betrayal, and the quest for “God in our midst.” [p. 2]

I confess to reading no further than the introduction, but that alone is so rich and thought provoking, it will fuel me for a while.

I wanted to find texts that reflect these themes, whether directly and indirectly, as I prepare for retelling the Exodus story at the seder on Monday. I chose to begin with a section from James Joyce’s Ulysses, which to me represents in the first part revelation, and in the second part redemption, and I will quote in full from the above edition:




“He stayed in his walk to watch a typesetter neatly distributing type. Reads it backwards first. Quickly he does it. Must require so practice that, mangiD. kcirtaP. Poor papa, with his hagadah book, reading backwards with his finger to me. Pessach. Next year in Jerusalem. Dear, O dear! All that long business about that brought us out of the land of Egypt and into the house of bondage. alleluia. Shema Israel Adomai Elohenu. No, that’s the other. Then the twelve brothers, Jacob’s sons. And then the lamb and the cat and the dog and the stick and the water and the butcher and then the angel of death kills the butcher and he kills the ox and the dog kills the cat. Sounds a bit silly till you come to look into it well. Justice it means but it’s everyone eating everyone else. That’s what life is after all. How quickly he does that job. Practice makes perfect. Seems to see with his fingers.
Mr. Bloom passed on out of the clanking noises through the gallery on to the landing, Now I am going to tram it out all the way and then catch him out perhaps. Better phone him up first. Number? Same as Citron’s house. Twentyeight. Twentyeights double four. “ [p. 118]

There are many reasons I like the above section. Aside from its direct link to the Exodus story, I am familiar with the feeling the story invokes in Bloom as he observes the typesetter and his memories carry him back to his father reading the hagadah. The boy is terrified of the narrative because it is often a cruel and terrifying narrative, with many plagues and boils and all sorts of bad punishments. And you seem to get little in return for you suffering. Not only that, but, as Bloom points out, we are sitting here around this table as a direct consequence of that story. At this point I must return to Zornberg who reminds us [p.2] that the biblical text does not stand alone, that it is open to commentaries and intertextuality and finds meaning in isolated text.
It is thanks to this tradition that I can take Joyce’s text as representing the Exodus narrative and the feeling of terror I associate with the story. But if the direct consequence of those long ago events is what brought us “into the house of bondage” then it was worth the journey and if this is what we got in return for our suffering, then we did well.

The particulars of rapture

The particulars of rapture

Again, returning to Zornberg, the important question is not “what really happened in Egypt” but “How to best tell the story? Where to begin? What in the master story speaks to one and therefore makes one speak?” [p.5]

So now, to the third grand theme of the Exodus story, betrayal. For betrayal I turn to a book that was never translated into English, so I will do my best to provide the background and text. Le’mor (to say) by Ariel Halperin, is a 118 p. long poem written in verse and divided in sections. The book was printed in a limited edition in 1986 by an independent bookstore in Jerusalem, and sold only in the bookstore. The book has long been out of print and the author never published literature again. The translation is mine and quite loose

“Every Passover I would hold back my tears until the time comes and the guests gathered at our house. We would eat large flat crackers and read the hagadah. On my feet were new shoes, always red, but the socks were white […] A lump would fill my throat, my suppressed tears, I knew the moment would come and I would have to ask. […] I open my mouth but the lump is deeper. Hoooow whispers a woman whose face I can’t recall, but whose voice, full of pity and compassion, released the squeaks from my throat while people looks away in embarrassment. […] Rare as miracles were the successes […] Why must I endure this year after year […].” [section 17]

And finally, to the last of the main themes of the Exodus narrative, “God in our midst” I want to remind my few readers about a staple of the Exodus story, and that is freedom. The Israelites leave Egypt as slaves and emerge after 40 years of wondering in the desert as a people. It is a story of liberation. Liberation, we are told by Alan Watts in the chapter Psychotherapy and Liberation in the book The couch and the tree is “the transformation of consciousness, of the inner feeling of one’s own existence; and second, the release of the individual from forms of conditioning imposed upon him by social institutions. “p. 80.
In this same collection, Akihisa Kondo discusses Karen Horney and says Horney “believed that when we become disillusioned of the idealized image of ourselves that handcuffs the development of our real self, our real self has a chance to grow. […]. From the Zen point of view, this is a fine step in discerning how grievously illusory are our idea about ourselves and our lives.”
Finding “God in our midst” is taken here as finding that chance to grow. The longest journey, said Dag Hammarsköld is the journey inward, and that is where the narrative of Exodus takes me and leaves me there to find the growth that is within.