By JOSHUA GUTOFFExtract from an article in Issue 20, January 19, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Reportclick here.
Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1) is read on Shabbat, January 17
Of all the books of the Bible, Exodus has
perhaps had the greatest impact on human modern history. So many people have seen the story of oppression and liberation as their own; so many movements have looked to that first freedom story for their own inspiration. In fact, most of us would describe the the story as - a political tale. The ancient rabbis saw it as something more. They read it as a love story, so much so that during Passover Jews read the Song of Songs.
And although the Exodus love story is primarily understood as one between God and the people Israel, it involves human love as well. As described in the Talmud (Sotah 11b), when the Israelite slaves came home at night after a day of back-breaking labor under the slave-drivers' whips, they were too tired to attend to their wives, too tired for intimacy of any sort. So the women would go out to visit their husbands in the fields and, in what privacy they could find, they would seduce them. Ashkenazi Jews tell that it happened under the shade of apple trees, whose contribution to the women's righteousness is remembered in the haroset on the Seder plate.
Wait a minute. Loving, yes. Devoted, yes. Ingenious, yes. But righteous? To be sure. For, according to the midrash, the men's exhaustion was not just a by-product of their toil, but the goal. As an early stage of a program that would culminate in the slaughter of the male children, Pharaoh imposed hard labor deliberately designed to keep the Israelite men and women apart. In the face of a regimen designed to deprive the Israelites of a future, the romantic encounters were acts of belief. Indeed, it was as a reward for the continued faith of those women that the Jews were ultimately taken out of Egypt.
In an age where one almost never hears the word "revolutionary" unless it's preceded by "armed," it's strange to realize that these earliest acts of rebellion were the opposite of violent; the women were engaged in a truly sexual revolution. While Pharaoh had wanted to "deal shrewdly" with the Israelites, to keep them from becoming "too numerous," the Jews responded by having more babies. But to fully appreciate just how powerful a rebellion it was, how threatening to the regime, we have to look at the Egyptians' initial anxiety, which is expressed in a remarkable way. Here is the language of the Bible:
"The Israelites bore fruit and swarmed and multiplied and increased very greatly; so that the land was filled with them." (Ex. 1:7).
Four terms in a row; in the Hebrew, four verbs one after the other, like drumbeats announcing a demographic explosion.
In a very artful way, the verse is presenting the point of view of the Egyptians, and their sense of the ever-growing Israelite population. And it presents, too, not just what the Egyptians saw of the Jews, but what they thought they saw. "Swarmed?" "Covered the land?" These aren't words you would normally apply to people - these are words you use to describe an infestation. In their fecundity the Israelites become, to the Egyptian eye, something less than human.
Contributing editor Rabbi Joshua Gutoff is a teacher and writer in New York. He blogs at www.frostandclouds.blogspot.com
Extract from an article in Issue 20, January 19, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Reportclick here.
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