Violent Death, Violent Birth
D’var Torah on Sh’mot, Exodus 1:1 – 6:1: Israel in Egypt, the beginning of their exodus and the story of Moses
Dedicated to Ruth Bruckner, my mother-in-law—her yahrzeit coincides this year with the date of her death on New Year’s Eve, 1969
Matilda Tomaryn Bruckner
29 December 2018
In last week’s parsha, both Jacob and his son Joseph died, marking the end of B’reishit’s family story and preparing the shift in this week’s parsha to the story of a people, still told in part through the experience of one family, one man: amid the deaths of countless baby boys born to the Israelites, one boy survives. Last week, three members of the community chevra kadisha spoke about their roles and their experiences in preparing the Jewish dead, men and women, for traditional burial: cleaning, purification, dressing and wrapping the meta or the met, then placing the body in the aron, the plain wooden casket. I was struck by their descriptions, the depth of kindness in their dedication, and by the word aron for coffin, since it’s the same word that describes the box, the aron kodesh, the Holy Ark, in which we place the Torah to remind us of the Ark of the Covenant carried through the wilderness. The bodies of the dead too are holy things treated with respect.
The association of aron and aron kodesh, casket and ark, reminded me of another ark as well, the ark in which baby Moses is placed so that he won’t be slaughtered when Pharaoh commands the drowning of all Israelite boys. So, as I sat there listening, I thought ahead to the many deaths, collective and individual, reported in today’s parsha, the beginning of Exodus. And I thought about the mourner’s kaddish, the special kaddish that marks not, as usual, a change in gears in the course of the service but a change in gears, as it were, in the life and memory of the dead. The kaddish focuses not on the direct evocation of death or the dead—no mention of met or meta, the body purified and buried. Extolling and sanctifying the name of God above all else, the kaddish performs as an expression of where the human and the divine meet. Which is to say, it focuses on language, the common place where we the living share a godlike power. B’tzelem elohim, made in the likeness of God, we speak; we create in language in the image of God speaking creation into existence.
The dead person we mourn remains implicit, unspoken in the kaddish, which gathers the met and meta for whom we speak into the continuing life of God in the universe. The kaddish holds them in memory through the Jewish community who listens and bears witness to our recitation. So, after invoking God’s name, what we request is life and peace for Israel, the collective people who emerged in the pain of slavery and the liberation of Exodus. Would it be possible, I wondered, to explore these links with Sh’mot?
Today I’ll try to do so through a series of reflections on the parsha that follow the mixing of life and death in the process of redemption. In so doing, I’ll be paying special attention to the role of language in a story you know well from countless seders retelling the enslavement of Israel, the bitter labors and the plagues, and the violent departure from Egypt. I’ll ask you to join the discussion at the end by inviting you to respond with your own views of what redemption of the living and the dead might be—for Israel and for the world, as we add to the traditional kaddish.
(1) First, a set of words:
My association of aron and aron kodesh, casket and ark, with Moses’s ark is based on a switch between languages. In Hebrew his floating box is a different word, tevah, used elsewhere in the Bible only for the ark Noah builds to survive the floods with his family and the pairs of animals who will repopulate the earth once the waters subside. Moses too survives on water, riding through a flood of death, safely held in an ark—well, at least that’s the translation in the King James version of the Bible: “an ark of bulrushes … daubed … with slime and with pitch” (2:3). Etz Hayim translates tevah as a “wicker basket” caulked with bitumen and pitch—a note explains that the words tevah and gome (Hebrew for the papyrus plant used for constructing light boats) are “Egyptian words giving local color to the story” (p. 322), as is suf, the reeds in the Nile, where his mother places the tevah, with the baby’s sister Miriam posted nearby to see what happens.
Words carry many meanings, stories that accumulate as they move through time and translation, as Robert Alter reminds us in an interview with Avi Steinberg published in the New York Times Magazine (12/23). Having just published his translation and commentary of the entire Hebrew Bible, Alter discusses his efforts to give us a version that is faithful to the poetry and language of the original Hebrew and as powerfully literary in English as the King James’s translation. In particular, he discusses the Hebrew word nefesh traditionally translated as soul in English-language Bibles since the 1611 King James version:
The problem with this “soul,” for Alter, is its Christian connotations of an incorporeal and immortal being, the dualism of the soul apart from the body. Nefesh, to the contrary, suggests the material, mortal parts, the things that make us alive on this earth. The body. …
“That Hebrew word, nefesh, can mean many things. It can be ‘breath’ or ‘life-breath.’ It can mean ‘throat’ or ‘neck’ or ‘gullet.’ Sometimes it can suggest ‘blood.’ It can mean ‘person’ or even a ‘dead person,’ ‘corpse.’ Or it can be ‘appetite’ or something more general: ‘life’ or even ‘the essential self.’ But it’s not quite ‘soul.’ ”
Nefesh, as you can see from Alter’s enumeration, runs the gamut from life to death across the body’s trajectory and parts.
Given his attention to both Hebrew and English, I also checked Alter’s translation for Moses’s tevah in The Five Books of Moses (published in 2004): “a wicker ark … caulked … with resin and pitch.” He retains the word ark to secure the association with Noah’s flood and elaborates the implications in his commentary (pp. 312-13):
- the parallels between the total destruction of the flood waters and the threatened annihilation of the people of Israel when Pharaoh orders all the baby boys to be thrown into the Nile;
- the association of water and birth;
- and the role of water as a theme that plays throughout Moses’s career from birth in Egypt through the Sea of Reeds (yam suf) and on into the wilderness when a thirsty people will repeatedly clamor for water.
(2) Crossing boundaries
Language carries history and culture, and another striking aspect of this story appears as a recurrent and surprising thread: the blurring of boundaries between Egypt and Israel, despite their violent separation at Israel’s birth. This is expressed most particularly as a kind of ethnic mixing, at least regarding the key figures Joseph and Moses. Moses like Joseph is perceived as an Egyptian and an Israelite.
In the last words of Genesis: “Joseph died at the age of 110 years and he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt” (50:26). The note in Etz Hayim indicates that 110 years is the ideal lifespan in ancient Egypt, while Jews wish you a 120 years—which turns out to be Moses’s lifespan. Unlike all the other patriarchs and matriarchs, Joseph’s body is embalmed and placed in a coffin, following Egyptian custom as well as preparing for the later return of his bones to the Promised Land.
In Midian, Moses is first identified as an “Egyptian man” (2:19). (Midianites, by the way, described in Gen 25:2-3 as descendants of Abraham and Keturah, are semi-nomadic peoples of the trans-Jordan region of the Arabian Peninsula. They are the ones who sold Joseph to Potiphar.) Moses marries Zipporah, the daughter of the Midianite priest Jethro. Does that make his son born in Midian a Hebrew-Egyptian-Midianite? The ethnic mix is signaled in his name Gershom, as explained in his father’s words: “A sojourner have I been in a foreign land” (2:22). That is, ger = sojourner (resident stranger/foreigner/alien) plus sham = there. Moses names his son by naming himself and linking father and son across generations, back to Joseph and forward to future diasporas.
Joseph called the Israelites down to Egypt to survive the famine, and he will accompany them when they leave after the long period of enslavement that will be brought to an end by a new leader who, like Joseph, inhabits both cultures and paradoxically spans life and death. If in one respect, Moses and Joseph are polar opposites—Moses timid and hesitant where Joseph is bold and self-confident—both acknowledge God as the power that moves through them to shape Israel’s destiny. Indeed, the parsha ends with God making that very point. Even though Pharaoh has increased the suffering of the Hebrew slaves after Moses’s request to let the people go, God has seen the Israelites’ plight and heard their cries (2:23-5, 3:7-9). In a phrase that will become a refrain throughout, God promises their deliverance with a “strong hand” (6:1).
Joseph ends his astounding career in a box that is a casket (aron) and Moses begins his in a box that is a boat (tevah), both routed in English through the ark that holds holy things. As 2:5-6 indicates, the ark in which baby Moses floats is completely enclosed. You can’t see what’s inside until you open it, as Pharaoh’s daughter does to discover the “weeping lad” inside. That’s Alter’s translation for the unexpected na’ar: signaling potent life, the baby cries with the voice of an older boy (Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture p. 51). Pharaoh’s daughter immediately understands that this must be a Hebrew baby boy who has been hidden to escape the order of infanticide (she doesn’t need to check his circumcision, if he has one… more on that in a moment).
(3) More mixing: water/fire, blood/water, life/death
Moses is named by Pharaoh’s daughter for the act of pulling him from the Nile, thus anticipating his repeated association with water. Moses is in fact an authentic Egyptian name, meaning “the one who is born,” that is, son. But the biblical text supplies a Hebrew folk etymology: mashah = “to draw out from water.” Alter also notes his unusual epithet: he is repeatedly designated as “the man Moses.” A man not a God (as Pharaoh would claim for himself), a man subject to birth and death, to becoming a met in a casket, a man with a body who goes off into the wilderness and encounters God on Mount Horeb (Parched Mountain) as an immaterial voice, a fire seen as a bush unconsumed by flames. When Moses goes to investigate, God speaks from the burning bush, commanding him to keep his distance. Water meets fire and Moses must take off his sandals since he’s approaching a holy place; afraid, he covers his eyes (3:1-6), as we are reminded that holy things/bodies/Torah contained in a box (or a bush) may or may not be touched, may or may not be uncovered or seen.
Reflecting the magic that is an everyday part of Egyptian life, God gives Moses three signs to convince the Israelites of his mission (4:1-9), all of which look forward to later scenes with Pharaoh as well: the rod that turns into a snake, the hand infected with a skin disease, and water from the Nile that turns into blood when poured on the land. Most striking, the association of water and blood evokes an earlier incident mixing blood and violence, life and death (4:24ff), when Moses and his family, encamped for the night on their journey back to Egypt, had a mythic encounter with death. Enigmatically narrated with murky language, pronouns all ambiguous, and the figure of God dangerous, vengeful, and contradictory, this episode remains a kind of archaic mystery (Alter, pp. 330-2). Having just promised Moses safety from charges of manslaughter back in Egypt, God suddenly reverses direction and attacks him (or his son). According to Alter and Etz Hayim, Zipporah circumcises Gershom to protect Moses from death, twice declaring him a “bridegroom of blood” (4:25 and 26), first when she touches his feet (Alter) or legs (Etz Hayim) with the foreskin, then again as if to emphasize the point, when God lets go of him.
Damim, the plural form for blood used here, generally means bloodshed or violence. Is this tit for tat for killing the Egyptian or perhaps a “symbolic synecdoche of human sacrifice” (Alter p. 331)? In any case, the deadly attack deferred throws a strange light on God’s prior announcement (4:22-3) that he’s about to kill Pharaoh’s firstborn son since he refused to send off God’s own firstborn, Israel. Annihilation repeatedly threatened in this parsha anticipates action carried out with the final plague, as blood reveals its contradictory messages signifying life and death: death for Egyptian firstborns, life for Israelites who smeared blood on their lintels so their firstborn were spared.
In the next parsha, Moses will claim that he is “uncircumcised of lips” (6:12) to express once again his sense of unfitness for God’s demand that he speak to Pharaoh for the people. The strange phrase suggests that an act of circumcision is necessary for him to be able to perform his mission, as if circumcision serves as the physical and spiritual sign that the man Moses, a man of two cultures, two ethnic identities, can become the leader of the Israelites.
(4) The role of women in the story of violent births, violent deaths
Not surprisingly, women play a prominent role in these opening episodes where it is so much a story of births. Later in Exodus they tend to disappear from the biblical action, though they continue to catch the attention of midrash, as Aviva Zornberg points out in her book, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus. In her introduction and analyses parsha by parsha, she explores how midrash obscures the border between written and spoken Torah, brings out the suppressed, the unsaid, the silence that can be glimpsed through what is said—which often involves the stories of women.
In the parsha itself we should notice their actions at several important junctures. At the end of chapter 3 when God is outlining what Moses should do and what will happen with the Egyptians, the final command entails “the despoiling of the Egyptians,” accomplished through contacts between Egyptian and Hebrew women. As Alter notes, “women constitute the porous boundary between adjacent ethnic communities” (p. 324). In the episode with the midwives in chapter 1, another kind of intermixing appears, this time blurring the line between animal and human. To excuse themselves before Pharaoh, Shiphrah and Puah claim the Hebrew women are “hardy”—a word associated with animals and related to the verb hayot, to live. In midrash, the proliferation of life among the Israelites is credited to the “daughters of Israel” who go to the fields, feed their men and instill desire with mirrors (reflected images that reintroduce the possibility of beauty), to induce their husbands to procreate against Pharaoh’s decree of annihilation, to counter the crushing weight of his gezera (Zornberg p. 57).
This animalistic “swarming” of the Hebrews (an allusion to Genesis and the command to be fruitful and multiply), who increase all the more even as they are oppressed, engenders fear among the Egyptians. The term itself voices their alienation and distance, as “Hebrews” designates the people from a foreign perspective, while “Israelites” expresses the view from within, an extension of the sons of Jacob/Israel. Zornberg understands the task of building imposed on the Hebrew slaves as precisely calculated by Egyptian fear to contain and stop amorphous life with hard, mud-baked bricks (p. 54). Even the tevah in which Moses is enclosed evokes the bricks of clay made by the Israelites, forced to be builders not procreators (p. 51). Paradoxically, as Rashi points out, the Egyptian oppressors not the Israelites will drown in mud at the Sea of Reeds.
(5) Final reflections on life, death and the question of redemption
The traditional reading of Exodus through midrash poses a question: does Israel deserve redemption? The answers yes and no depend on the issue of assimilation. Some see enslavement as punishment for assimilating into Egyptian culture: the Israelites don’t cry out as they are first enslaved; there’s no circumcision during the sojourn in Egypt after the first generation. In this view, redemption comes by God’s grace alone. But other midrashim see Israel’s rescue as a reward for not assimilating: the Israelites are therefore worthy of redemption through their resistance.
A number of midrashim explored by Zornberg imagine Israelite babies ground into the bricks of mud and straw, immured in the walls built for Pharaoh. As they cry out to God, they seal the fate of the Egyptians. It is for them that Moses seems to speak when he complains to God that he promised redemption but it hasn’t yet come, only more suffering. What about those who die as we await redemption?
For Zornberg, crying out is the first act of salvation. The clues she follows (pp. 29-30, 46-7, 56, 59) are found in the Hebrew expression pakad, “take note,” which recurs in Joseph’s last words (twice repeated), through our parsha, and in the midrash on Serach, Asher’s daughter, who lives through the generations of enslavement to recognize the sign in Moses’ words, the repeating sound of p-p, and knows where Joseph’s bones are buried so they can be taken back as promised.
These repeating words and sounds, the constant staging of the dialogue between God and Moses, suggest that God’s charge to Moses is essentially “a matter of language” (Zornberg p. 52). Moses expresses his sense of inadequacy as a heaviness of the tongue, the overwhelming weight preventing speech in the face of silence and despair. Because the gezera is not just Pharaoh’s but God’s decree as well, going back to the covenant with Abraham decreeing 400 years in Egypt. “The gezera world has the weight of experience, of memory, of astute observation behind it” (p. 72); it cramps imagination, requires the kind of mirror play used by the daughters of Israel. How to imagine a different world within God’s providential plan? That is how we might understand Moses in his face to face with God, his doubts about himself and the Israelites alternating with his compassion for the dead and the suffering. By taking a negative view, Moses forces God to articulate the positive view, putting into language a vision of the people’s future fitness for redemption. God’s self naming—ehyeh asher ehyeh, I shall be what I shall be, I shall be with you—thus expresses the divine nature as a continual source of redemption through repeated slaveries, periodic catastrophe and subjection (pp. 74-9).
In God’s name we may be comforted for the individual deaths we suffer; in sanctifying God’s name, the people Israel remains alive. The aron kodesh placed before us, the box that contains and protects words of Torah, continues to recall for us and for our community the met and the meta placed with reverence in their caskets. They are remembered as the kaddish praises the name of God and requests life and peace for Israel.
So now it’s your turn to respond: what does redemption mean for you, what is life and death for us, for Israel, for others around us in the world?