In this week’s show, we hold the Exodus story up to the light and turn it — like a jewel, the ancient rabbis would say. And Avivah Zornberg tells us what she sees: astonishing detail, hues of meaning, and a cargo of hidden stories. We follow Zornberg and find ourselves addressed, whoever we are. This story, among all the narratives of the Hebrew Bible, has proven itself a bearer across time of near-universal themes.
Scholars locate it in history. But Exodus also qualifies lavishly for my favorite definition of “myth” — a word we’ve diminished, equated with things that are not “true.” Myth, said the Greek statesman Solon, “is not about something that never happened. It is about something that happens over and over again.” In a paraphrase I also love, Rabbi Sandy Sasso once said to me about the Exodus story, with its irresistible dramatic potential: “What happened once upon a time happens all the time.”
Judaism indulges this insight with its practice of midrash — a practice of seeking multiple meanings in sacred text, of treating gaps in the story as invitations. At one and the same time, midrash takes the text seriously and honors the personal, moral struggle of the reader in every generation to interpret and apply it.
Midrashic explications of Exodus take us far from the simple children’s book tale that would pit a heroic Moses against a villainous Pharaoh and end happily ever after. But it starts with the bare bones of the story. In the act of retelling, of walking attentively through the story, something magical happens with the basic contours of character and plot. Layer upon layer of meaning emerge — alternately whimsical and challenging. This is storytelling for adults.
I won’t try to recreate Avivah Zornberg’s guided walk through Exodus. I’ll just share some high points, the kind of revelation that is possible with the tools at her disposal. Most basic and important of all, perhaps, is her close knowledge of the original Hebrew. Hebrew is a visual language, full of allusive imagery and evocative word play, and that is invariably lost in translation. In the Exodus epic, Moses first encounters God in a burning bush. Avivah Zornberg translates the name that God gives from the burning bush, “I Will Be Who I Will Be.” This is no less inscrutable than the usual English translation, “I Am Who I Am.” But Zornberg’s translation suggests something others miss: the evasiveness and — one might say — defiance of a God who refuses to be captured, to be reduced to human limitation. “I will be who I will be” suggests infinite possibility.
Moses before the burning bush (photo: Edward Lim/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
From raw materials of word and narrative, Avivah Zornberg uncovers in Exodus a rich commentary on human nature at its best and at its worst, in the powerful and in the weak. She draws fascinating and resonant observations about the madness and self-defeat of the authoritarian personality, for example. She explores the personal vigor and vision that are required if victims are to cease being victims. She reads Exodus as a tale of passion — of God’s aroused attention to the enslaved people’s suffering, and a subsequent longing on the part of God that mirrors the more predictable longing of human beings in the other direction.
Avivah Zornberg calls her book about Exodus The Particulars of Rapture. She is interested in the rapture of the accomplishment of freedom, and of relationship between human beings and God. But she acknowledges, as does the sacred text, that rapture rarely comes unalloyed. Her passion, if you will, is for the details — the particularities — that render this narrative humanly accessible as much as divinely inspired, that keep it open and relevant to new generations. She draws on poetry, modern literature, and psychology as she makes sense of this text in our lifetime, and she takes her title itself from these lines of a poem by Wallace Stevens:
Two things of opposite natures seem to depend
On one another, as a man depends
On a woman, day on night, the imagined
On the real. This is the origin of change.
Winter and spring, cold copulars, embrace
And forth the particulars of rapture come.
Photo of Avivah Zornberg by Debbi Cooper