Friday, December 28, 2012

Exodus through the Looking Glass: Parshat Sh'mot

I wrote last week about an interpretation of Exodus that compares slavery in Egypt to living under a totalitarian regime:
...Zornberg shows me a) that it is well grounded in traditional rabbinic texts,  b) that it lets us honor Jewish women as agents of redemption and c) that we can appreciate sensuality as a realm of freedom even--perhaps especially--in times that try our souls.
How is it grounded in rabbinic texts?  Intricately, and with too much care, attention, and detail for me to summarize here.  The idea that Zornberg returns to again and again is that there is a real question whether the Jews are worthy to be redeemed, and whether they can see themselves as worthy--a play on the double meaning of the Hebrew word ra'uy.  

How are women agents of redemption in Exodus?  By making men see themselves as worthy: that is, desirable!  She cites a midrash to the effect that after Pharoah decreed that the Israelite men should work in the fields, and not sleep at home with their wives:
Said Rabbi Shimeon bar Chalafta, What did the daughters of Israel do?  They would [buy wine] and go to the fields and feed their husbands....And when they had eaten and drunk, the women would take the mirrors and look into them with their husbands, and she would say "I am more comely than you," and he would say "I am more comely than you."  And as a result, they would accustom themselves to desire, and they were fruitful and multiplied.... (p. 57)
Mirrors are not mere vanity: they make us look at ourselves and find each other delightful.  Sensuality is not a sin: it is an affirmation of me and you, life, and the possibility of a future.  How can we imagine that God desires us if we do not desire each other?  And if we can see what is "comely" in ourselves despite toil, separation, subjugation, and contempt, we can hold out hope that the oppressors have it wrong, and that we will yet be free.

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