Friday, January 12, 2007

Shemot (Rashi)

The Birth of Moses

For further tecahings on this portion, see the archives to this blog for January 2006.

With this week’s portion, we leave behind the world of the Fathers and turn to Israel in Egypt, the events leading up to the Redemption from Egypt—and the figure of the great teacher and deliverer, Moses, beginning with his formative years and early life. A substantial piece of narrative—ten verses (Exod 2:1-10)—is devoted to his birth and surrounding events. It occurred to me this year, for the first time, that this section deserves a closer examination (Perhaps because, in my personal life, I am very much betwixt and between events of death and birth; nothing mythic or Phoenix-like, but a new grandchild due any day). Why does the Torah elaborate upon this subject as it does?

The story begins with the marriage of his parents who, strangely, are not identified by name: they are simply “a man from the house of Levi” and “a daughter of Levi.” It is only much later, in the partial genealogy of the tribes following the festive proclamation of the forthcoming Exodus, in Exod 6:20, that we learn their names—this is, in fact, almost the only time Amram and Yocheved are named in the Bible (the others are in genealogical tables in Numbers and in Chronicles).

The story is preceded by Pharaoh’s decree that all male children (presumably the Israelites alone) are to be drowned in the Nile (Exod 1:22); this, after the good midwives had used subterfuge to thwart his decree that every male child be killed (vv. 15-21). Following his birth, we are told that his parents saw that he was “good.” This is followed by the main point of the story: that, after seeing that they could no longer hide him, his parents set him down in the river in a little basket, his sister (again, unnamed here) keeps an eye on him, he is seen by Pharaoh’s daughter, who takes pity on him and decides to adopt him, at which point Miriam steps out of the shadows, so to speak, to offer her mother’s services as a nursemaid. He thus spends his infancy in his parental home, with his mother as his hired wet-nurse, and thereafter raised in the royal house.

The phrase, “they saw he was good,” quite naturally puzzled the midrash and commentators. What kind of “goodness” is referred to here? It could not be moral good, as a new-born is hardly confronted with any moral decisions, being hardly able to even move, speak, or do anything else but suck at the breast. Was he good in that he did not cry, thereby making it easier to conceal his existence? Was he beautiful, of goodly appearance? Among the suggestions made by the midrash at Exod. Rab. 1.20 are that his name was Tov or Tuviah; that he was born circumcised, and thus physically perfect in a sense that most males are not; that he was somehow born already fit for prophecy (as in the call to Jeremiah, “before I formed you in the womb I knew you”); or that chosen by Rashi to single out in his comment:

“And the woman conceived, and gave birth to a son; and she saw him, that he was good, and hid him for three months.” Rashi: “That he was good.” When he was born the entire house was filled with light (b. Sotah 12a)

This story invites comparison to other birth stories. The motif of the birth of the child who is destined to play an important role in later life, the circumstances of whose birth are themselves unusual, is a common one in the Bible. Notable examples are: the birth of Isaac, after the visitation of Abraham by the angels and the miraculously renewed fruitfulness of his elderly mother; that of Jacob, again following a period of barrenness and prayer, focused on the children’s struggle in the womb, foreshadowing both the future competition between the brothers and that between the respective nations who will stem from them; that of Perez and Zerah, the sons of Judah and Tamar; of the prophet Samuel, whose mother prayed for a child during her annual visit to the temple at Shiloh, vowing that his life would be dedicated to God; and of Samson, whose birth was, again, heralded by an angelic visit and instructions to the mother that both she and the child must observe Nazirite practices.

The motif likewise appears in other cultures and other religions, as well as in later Judaism. Otto Rank, a psychologist of Freud’s Vienna circle, who later broke with him over his lack of adherence to Oedipal orthodoxy, wrote an entire monograph entitled The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, in which he analyzes a series of such stories and propounds a psychoanalytic interpretation centered on the role of the child in the family and his need to break with his parents. The best-known birth story to those of us who grew up in Western culture is that of the nativity of Jesus, who was also born under conditions of flight and difficulty (in one version they are fleeing from the tax collectors: a timely subject, although now the tables are turned, the tax men being the ones pursued by the police), and involving an angelic annunciation, motifs of light, etc. Rank discusses, among others, the births of the Buddha, Sargon, Oedipus, Gilgamesh, Cyrus the Great, Romulus, Hercules, etc. Latter-day Jewish figures whose births are embellished by legend include R. Yitzhak Luria (the Ari), the Baal Shem Tov, the Gaon of Vilna, the Or ha-Hayyim and most recently the late Lubavitcher Rebbe; and, to turn again to the non-Jewish world, the Dalai Lama, who is still very much among us. All these involved various signs, miracles, overcoming obstacles, arduous journeys by messengers, etc.

Being neither a scholar of comparative religion, an expert in semiotics and symbolism, nor a psychiatrist, I will only talk about the Moses story, with the other Jewish stories in the background. I see the basic significance of this and other such stories in terms of the old debate about nature vs. nurture. On the one hand, Judaism teaches free-will, personal choice, the idea that each and every individual is able to make of his life what he wishes, given enough diligence, hard work and will-power. There is a strong democratic streak: the Torah is open to poor and rich; “take heed of the children of the poor, for from them shall come forth Torah.” Stories of schleppers, people from poor backgrounds—both socio-economically and even culturally and intellectually—who appear out of nowhere to become gedolim and make great contributions to Yahadut, are rife: Rabbi Akiva, Onkelos, Shemaya and Avtalyon, even Resh Lakish, are a few examples. Some of the great teachers of our day, as well, came from assimilated and ignorant backgrounds. The central message is thus one of personal responsibility. On the other hand, there is also an idea that birth, the basic givens of a person, genetics, if you will, are important in determining what a person becomes. There is a feeling that great people will have extraordinary childhoods and births, somehow heralding their great future. (Closely related to the birth legends are the legends of prodigies: such-and-such a person knew the entire Talmud by age thirteen, or ten, or even earlier. Such stories are told even today, about people living among us, such as Prof. David Weiss-HaLivni or Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. It is told of the latter that, when barely past bar mitzvah age, he used to sit in the Bet Midrash at Hayyim Berlin, and bokhurim five or six years older then him, who were already young adults, would come to him to explain difficult Talmudic passages. I heard this from these students, now men in their 70s or 80s, who remember him fondly as “the kid.”) But—and I think this is the crucial point—this is not an aristocracy of birth, of “breeding,” so much as it is based on the insight that the great person, the extraordinary individual, will somehow shows signs of his future capability from birth.

Ehyeh asher Ehyeh: “I will be as I will be”

But perhaps the single most important passage in this week’s parsha is that describing the encounter between Moses and God at the burning bush, whose high point comes when Moses asks God what he shall tell the Israelites about the God who spoke to him, and God answers, ehyeh asher ehyeh, usually translated as “I shall be as I shall be.”

The conventional wisdom holds that this sentence is one in which the meaning of the four-letter Ineffable Name of the Divine is derived from the verb “to be,” and simply means “Being” or “He whose Being is unconditional”—conjuring up, perhaps, the reflections of some weighty and abstruse German philosopher. However, Art Green, in his book Seek My Face, Speak My Name, makes an interesting observation:

… Y-H-W-H, the One of all being. This name of God is the starting point of all Jewish theology. It is to be read as an impossible construction of the verb “to be.” HaYaH—that which was—HoWeH—that which is—and YiHYeH—that which will be—are here forced together in a grammatically impossible conflation. Y-H-W-H is a verb that has been artificially arrested in motion and made to function as a noun.

In other words: the Ineffable Name is not really a name at all, but a construction that forces one to realize that one cannot really define God at all. Green continues:

This elusiveness is underscored by the fact that all the letters that make up this name served in ancient Hebrew interchangeably as consonants and as vowels…. There is nothing hard or defined in their sound. The name of that which is most eternal and unchanging in the universe is also that which is wiped away as readily as a passing breath. (p. 18)

This idea is really close to an important insight of Buber: that God can never be related to as an abstraction, a concept, an object of thought, but only as He to whom one stands in relation. God cannot be an “It” but is always “the Eternal Thou”—i.e., in relationship—and therefore cannot be referred to by any name.

Although Rashi on our verse does not express these ideas directly (which are of course couched in a type language that belongs to our time, not his), it is not anachronistic to imagine them as implicit in the background of what he says here:

3:14. “And God said to Moses, ‘I shall be as I shall be.’ And He said: Thus shall you say to the children of Israel. ‘I shall be’ has sent me to you.” Rashi: “I shall be as I shall be.” I shall be with them in this trouble, just as I shall be with them during their subjugation in future exiles (Berakhot 9b). He [Moses] said to Him: Master of the Universe. Why shall I mention to them another trouble? Surely their present trouble suffices for them! (Exod. Rab. 3.6). He said to him: You have spoken well. “Thus shall you say….”

Here, the Divine name does not refer to large, abstract philosophical or theological issues about the nature of God and of Being. Rather, the statement “I shall be as I shall be” is a simple statement of presence, of solidarity, of support, a promise that He will be with the people and see them through in this difficult time.

But even that is not simple enough or down-to-earth enough for Moses. God begins with a sweeping promise: not only will I be with them in their present situation, but in future times of difficulty as well. Here, Moses cuts Him short; we can imagine him saying something like: “Are You crazy? The people have enough to have to deal with in the present situation. There’s no point even hinting that things might not be peaceful and rosy thereafter!” God readily agrees to this (some commentators are troubled at the hint that the Omniscient might not have known this already, and suggest that His statement “I will be with them in future troubles” was meant for Moses’ ears alone), and modifies it to “I will be” has sent you.

Some time ago I had an experience that brought this point home to me. A friend of mine wished to discuss a difficult and painful halakhic issue related to premarital sex. I discussed the issue with him, and then emailed a study I wrote some years ago (HY V: Vayeshev, Mishpatim, Vayakhel), in which I discussed the ramifications of various positions against the backdrop of contemporary culture. My friend answered: “You wrote there about the consequences of different approaches in terms of the entire generation and the whole Jewish people, but I don’t have the head for any of that; I’m really interested in myself and my own problem.” In short, the ordinary person, and even highly educated and sophisticated people, are interested by and large in their own lives and their own concrete needs. So, too, Rashi here reads the potentially abstract idea of ehyeh asher ehyeh in very concrete, real, down to earth terms.

A surprisingly unphilosophical and untheological definition of God, so to speak, also appears in Rashi’s treatment of the Shema (Deut 6:4). There, the counterpoint between “HWYH is our God” and “HWYH is One” is explained, not in terms of abstractions about the nature or meaning of Unity, but in concrete, historical terms: “God, whom you, Israel, know now, will be the God of all at some future time.” (We will return to this, with God’s help, in Parshat Vaethanan; meanwhile, see my discussion of this point from previous years in my blog archives).


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