The Cause of Suffering Is Resistance: Let (My People) Go

Friday, April 11, 2014 - 7:49pm
The Cause of Suffering Is Resistance: Let (My People) Go

How does one leave home in peace? Shari Motro reflects on how we all can find our way back, using the abundant lessons of the relationship between Pharaoh and Moses in the Exodus story. On the other side of it all, forgiveness and gratitude resides.

Commentary by:
Shari Motro,  guest contributor
Shortened URL
7 ReflectionsRead/Add Yours
License: Getty Images.

How does one leave home in peace?

Passover, which begins on Monday evening this year, can offer some clues to answering this most universal of questions. But when I left Israel at 18, determined to start a new life not as a Jew but as a human being, I wasn’t ready to receive them.

Most Passover Seders I had attended emphasized tropes of the Exodus that I chafe at — a vengeful God, a world in which women are secondary, an us-against-them zero-sum sensibility. In America, Jewish holidays presented an added challenge. Having grown up a member of a privileged majority, I couldn’t connect to the diaspora mentality. I felt like a stranger among the very people with whom I was supposed to feel at home. Touching this nerve was painful; avoidance seemed like the easier option. To my mother’s chagrin, I spent Passover Eve of my junior year with a non-Jewish friend at a Japanese restaurant.

Eventually, I understood the futility of this strategy. Though mainstream Jewish observances left me feeling bereft, so did not marking the holidays at all.

After years of searching, giving up, and searching again, I’ve begun to discover streams that nourish me. Through them, I’m finding a way back, a way to reengage with my tradition without losing myself. As I wrestle, one of the guides who's helping me along the way is Moses.

Moses was born a Hebrew slave but was raised in Pharaoh’s palace. Read metaphorically, the Exodus story contains a message for anyone who has wondered whether some cosmic accident landed her with the wrong family. Anyone who has experienced the privileges she accrued by virtue of her birth as confusing. Anyone who at some point experienced her parents as oppressive or narrow. Egypt, in Hebrew, means “narrow place.”

Moses’ initial reaction is the classic teenage rebellion — it’s rash, it’s risky, and it lands him in big trouble. After witnessing an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, Moses kills the Egyptian, buries him in the sand, and runs to the desert. In Midian, Moses marries a local and has a son whom he names Gershom, meaning "stranger." (“For I was a stranger in a strange land,” he says.)

But running away doesn’t work. At some point, those of us who leave unfinished business behind are called to return. For Moses, the call starts as a fire, a fire that burns but doesn’t consume. The burning bush is a fire that can be neither put out nor ignored.

Moses goes home to face the conflict he ran from. His task is to negotiate, to mediate between the slaves and Pharaoh, both of whom symbolize aspects of every human soul. He will eventually leave again, but in a different way.

Leaving home in peace requires acknowledging the naysaying voice within. Moses can’t leave Egypt for good until his ability to dream his own future overwhelms his fear, until he stands before Pharaoh and speaks his truth.

Yes, I killed the Egyptian.
Yes, I’ve turned my back on you. Look, I’m not you. I’m a different person.
Yes, I want to leave.
Will you let me go?

Credit: Don Emmert License: AFP/Getty Images.

Pharaoh says no, as parents do. Sometimes parents say no even when they know that eventually they’re going to relent, that everybody will be better off when they do. Nevertheless, some inexplicable force compels them to dig in their heels, to wield their power while they still have it.

Of course, Pharaoh is an extreme example. This is the point of archetypal myths: they use extremes to illustrate lessons that apply to us all.

Pharaoh symbolizes attachment — the eminently human tendency to resist change. The plagues are the suffering that results from attachment. Each plague is a message from Pharaoh’s higher self, like a body that keeps getting sick until you listen to it.

For Moses, the message of the plagues may be this: your blossoming into your most radiant self is not the true cause of suffering — Pharaoh’s suffering, your suffering, anybody’s. The cause of suffering is resistance.

After the tenth and most devastating plague — the death of the firstborn child — Pharaoh finally relents, and the Israelites leave “in haste.” They leave so quickly they can’t wait for their bread to rise. This is why we eat unleavened bread on Passover. What’s the message here?

When the force holding you back finally relents, go. Go. Don’t be scared. Don’t feel guilty. Don’t hang around saying long goodbyes. It’s time.

And if Pharaoh follows at your heels and drowns in the pursuit, don’t rejoice. According to one interpretation, this is what God said to the angels who sang as the Egyptian chariots were swallowed by the sea:

“Don’t rejoice, for they are my creatures too.”

Yet, the texts are also filled with the opposite, with joy.

Credit: Jesus Solana License: Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

This is the paradox. When we finally break free, our glee is often tinged with something else, with a sinking recognition of the grief of those we have left behind. And… surviving requires not allowing ourselves to drown in their tears. Surviving is rejoicing despite their pain.

Somehow, on the other side of it all, there is a place where all is forgiven, where the narrowness of our birth canal becomes a source of love and gratitude, where zero-sum gives way to abundance, where Pharaoh and Moses are one.

I’ve seen only glimpses of this place. For me, this is the Promised Land.

Shortened URL

Shari Motro is a professor of law at the University of Richmond. She has written commentaries for The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Add Your Reflection

Filtered HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd><span><div><img><!-->
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Embed content by wrapping a supported URL in [embed] … [/embed].

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
7Reflections

I will read this many, many more times to see more and more what is here. But this beautiful spring morning having awakened feeling anything but refreshed . . . thinking about the Seder with an unusual feeling of emptiness . . . having lately lost my connection to the Judaism I have loved over 59 years of celebrating its rich festivals for many of the same reasons mentioned here . . . I cry and feel a sense of renewal and continuity.

What Ms. Motro and On Being have given me is as nourishing and miraculous as manna but much more delicious and deeply appreciated.

Having recently divorced and estranged from my nuclear family I am touched by this writing. In order to heal I have had to flea and there is not a day that goes by that I don't yearn for the simple days of my sweet Jewish upbringing. Now I let go of the resistance and I am free. I am beginning again with a new family, new thoughts, new traditions, new blessings and new love.

Beautiful

Thanks so much for your reflection. I created a six-session writing journey based on the story of the Exodus called "Water From the Rock" and I will point participants to this illuminating essay. I especially love what you say about paradox and suffering. Dayenu.

You are right, we ought to be obedient to God and also this must be a life style even as to other authorities in our lives.

But you were born in New York, Shari! Be clear.

Isn't she from Hempstead?

Top Blog Posts

With the dulcet tones of the Copenhagen Phil, commuters find a moment of unexpected musical joy in this flash mob scene. You will too.
Parker Palmer reflects on "sharing our loves and doubts" as way into more generous conversations — all through the lens of a poem by Yehuda Amichai.
A worthy week filled with viral videos that will make you rethink your use of language and make you smile, and posts about a writer's prayer journal and a poem from Rumi that will inspire you.
At our darkest hours, when light fails to find a home, a path of buttercups may lead us back. Parker Palmer offers up thoughts and a Willow Harth poem for many of us caught "underground."
When a millennial woman hears about Buddhist teachings on overcoming anger through love, she decides to try out a meditation practice experiment on her own social media feeds.