Saturday, December 22, 2012

Reading Exodus in a New Way

The Exodus is about to begin again.  On January 5, to be precise.

Jews read the five books of Moses, or Torah, every week, in a yearly cycle.  It so happens that on the first Saturday of 2013, we read the very first portion of the book of Exodus.

It takes a mental leap to put ourselves in a place no one is yet calling Egypt, with an enslaved group of people, no one is yet calling Jews, over three thousand years ago.  Often, people in the U.S. try to imagine it by using as a guide the experience of the enslaved people closest to us, whose history we know the best: Africans captured and brought to the United States.  We know the songs,"Go Down Moses" and all the songs that say "Look Over Jordan," that explicitly connect the Negro slaves with the Israelites.  We know the speeches of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in which he refers to the Exodus and the Promised Land (too many to count).

But Avivah Zornberg, in The Particulars of Rapture, takes us to a different time and place: Eastern Europe under Communist Party rule.  Instead of King and gospel, she invokes Vaclav Havel, and Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  Putting ourselves in the place of the enslaved Africans let us feel the pain of the lash and the load on our shoulders.  Putting ourselves in the place of the citizens of a totalitarian state, we focus instead on what it takes to maintain inner freedom: to know that we are not just slaves, not simply parts of a whole.

For me, this is a new approach.   I welcome it all the more because 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.  More on this to come: stay tuned.

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