Middle Israel: With Moses in the desert

Did the departure from Egypt represent disillusionment with the thought of mending the world?

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
On the face of it, the great journey on which our forefathers embarked several millennia ago this weekend was not unique. From Mao's Long March and the Boers' Great Trek to Homer's Odyssey and the American pioneers' Oregon Trail, history is littered with arduous expeditions that stretched thousands of miles and involved continuous encounters with man's evil and nature's cruelty, voyages drenched by bloody clashes with Indian, African and Chinese warriors and struggles with vicious sea waves, wild winds, telepathic ghosts and multiheaded beasts en route to a craved destination and amid losses of numerous lives. Surely, the Exodus was different. Mao's flight from the nationalists also took the lives of most its original participants and in fact traversed a path more than five times the distance between the Nile and Jericho; yet unlike the Exodus it involved only an avant-garde, not an entire nation. Similarly, the Boers were inspired by the biblical Exodus, but unlike the Israelites, who defied slavery, they were out to preserve it. And unlike the heroes of the Oregon Trail, who symbolized the American character in their spontaneity and lack of leaders, the Exodus's every aspect, from its cause and destination to its path, food and navigational tools were supplied from above. It follows, one would think, that the Exodus also inverts the Odyssey, where Odysseus's quest is not to flee his point of origin, but to return there. After all, wasn't the Israelites' trek all about turning their backs on Egypt and all that it represented? So much so that Moses later said of any future king of Israel: "He shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since the Lord has warned you - 'you must not go back that way again'"? Not quite. THE EXODUS, unlike all other tales, myths and legends of super-journeys, was actually programmed to bear meaning not merely to the Israelites. That at least is what the Talmud must have meant when it said that when the Torah was given God's voice "went from one end of the world to the other, and the entire world's kings shivered in their palaces - and sang." Some sages in fact thought the Exodus was meaningful not only universally but even cosmically, that even the birds fell silent and the sea stood still as a dumbfounded world listened while a voice went forth: "I, the Lord, am your God." In fact, who in his right mind could possibly fail to see the universal meaning of despotism's defeat, freedom's victory and the subsequent prohibitions of crimes like murder, adultery, perjury and theft? Who? Moses. FOR ONE thing, Moses's quote of a ban on returning to Egypt does not appear anywhere in the Pentateuch. The commentator Ibn Ezra said it was an unwritten commandment, but others suggested that the prohibition merely stemmed from Moses's own reassurance to the bewildered Israelites on the Red Sea's shore, as Pharaoh's cavalry blanketed the horizon, that "the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again." In other words, the sweeping prohibition to return to Egypt may have been Moses's idea rather than God's. Moses, whose upbringing in the Egyptian palace was the trauma of his life, wanted no more of Egypt. Egypt was for him a kingdom of genocide, deceit, abuse, arbitrariness and treachery. It was there that his adoptive family attacked his biological family, it was there that he spontaneously killed an Egyptian stranger who was beating a defenseless Hebrew man, and it was there, in the thick of the deep, chilly and dark corridors of power by the Nile, that he saw how abusive political power can become, how hopelessly immoral an empire can become despite - indeed, with the help of - its technical sophistication, architectural inspiration, administrative efficiency and military resolve. That is also why the alternative memory that the Israelites carried with them, of a Hebrew man named Joseph who once rose to prominence in a different Egypt, was to Moses anathema. The impression this caused of potential harmony between the Hebrews and the gentiles seemed to him as illusive as it was dangerous. Moses took Joseph's remains with him into the wilderness explaining that Joseph had willed the children of Israel: "Then you shall carry up my bones from here with you." Yet Joseph himself is quoted previously as having only said: "When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here." He didn't say carry my bones "with you," that was Moses' choice, part of his revolutionary determination to burn the bridges to the past, and flee not only Egypt - but the entire world beyond the Promised Land, the one that so willingly worshipped raw power. So captured did he become by the idea of replacing civilization as he knew it, that he grew impatient with the desert that sprawled between him and Canaan, at one time beating in frustration its waterless face, at another divorcing the woman he had found there back when he originally fled the evil empire on the Nile, while still clueless about the prospects of cultivating an alternative society by the Jordan. WHY, ACTUALLY, was Egypt to be abandoned? After all, Pharaoh and his army had drowned. Did the departure from Egypt represent disillusionment with the thought of mending the world, just like Abraham was told to leave rather than change civilization on the other end of the ancient Near East? Apparently, that is how Moses saw it. It was as if the lawgiver was telling the Israelites: "As a resident of Pharaoh's palace I saw from above what you saw as slaves felt from below - the corruption, violence and idiocy of human power, and the futility of Hebrew existence outside the land of the Hebrews. I therefore am telling you: Follow me to the Promised Land." And yet of all people, the very Moses who more than anyone else shaped the Israelite ideal, never got to set foot in the Promised Land. Why? Because Moses lost hope for the rest of the world, and made do with an Exodus that would abandon the non-Hebrew world to totalitarianism's devices. God, however, disagreed; He wanted the Hebrews' deliverance to inspire others as well. And so, the man who invested so much in fleeing the non-Promised Land was ultimately chased, defeated and consumed by it; how ironic, how symbolic, how dialectical and for us Zionists - how proverbial.