Krista's Journal: The Necessity of Desire for Liberation

April 21, 2005

This week we hold the Exodus story up to the light and turn it 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 habit 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. A midrashic explication of Exodus takes 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.

Recommended Reading

Image of The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodos
Author: Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg
Publisher: Schocken (2011)
Binding: Paperback, 592 pages

Avivah Zornberg's inspired and imaginative interpretation of the Exodus story offers a detailed and complex analysis of its meaning across the ages.

Everett Fox's masterful translation of the Torah, The Five Books of Moses, makes the creative lyricism, allusion, and imagery of the original Hebrew transparent in English.

Voices on the Radio

is a scholar of Torah and rabbinic literature, and author of several books including The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus.

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