The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodos

The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodos

by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg

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Avivah Zornberg grew up in a world of rabbinic tradition and scholarship and received a Ph.D. in English literature from Cambridge University. The Particulars of Rapture, the sequel to her award-winning study of the Book of Genesis, takes its title from a line by the American poet Wallace Stevens about the interdependence of opposite things, such as male and…  See more details below


Avivah Zornberg grew up in a world of rabbinic tradition and scholarship and received a Ph.D. in English literature from Cambridge University. The Particulars of Rapture, the sequel to her award-winning study of the Book of Genesis, takes its title from a line by the American poet Wallace Stevens about the interdependence of opposite things, such as male and female, and conscious and unconscious. To her reading of the familiar story of the Israelites and their flight from slavery in Egypt, Avivah Zornberg has brought a vast range of classical Jewish interpretations and Midrashic sources, literary allusions, and ideas from philosophy and psychology. Her quest in this book, as she writes in the introduction, is "to find those who will hear with me a particular idiom of redemption," who will hear "within the particulars of rapture . . . what cannot be expressed."

Zornberg's previous book, The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis, won the National Jewish Book Award for nonfiction in 1995 and has become a classic among readers of all religions. The Particulars of Rapture will enhance Zornberg's reputation as one of today's most original and compelling interpreters of the biblical and rabbinic traditions.

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The Mirror of Redemption

Exodus 1:1-6:1]

1. Fit for Redemption? The Human Context

Israel and Egypt: The Mosaic Distinction

In Jewish tradition, the Exodus from Egypt marks the birth of the Israelite nation and religion. Conceptually, it marks a basic separation between cultures: a distinction between true and false in religion that Jan Assmann, in Moses the Egyptian, calls the Mosaic distinction: "The space severed or cloven by this distinction is the space of Western monotheism."1

How was this distinction conceived? What are the symbolic values attached to each of the two figures, Israel and Egypt? Underlying the issues of truth and falsehood, the Mosaic distinction, in its more profound ethical dimensions, attributes psychological and spiritual values to each figure. The stakes of redemption, of birth to a full selfhood, are large: the issue is not narrowly theological but rather is related to all that makes individual and collective life fruitful or sterile.

Particularly in the midrashic sources and in Chasidic texts, questions as to the inner meaning of redemption generate a construction of Egypt as the world of constriction, paralysis, and silence. The pun often found in Chasidic writings associates Mitzrayim (Egypt) with meitzarim (straits). Egypt becomes a country of the spirit, constricted and, in a real sense, inescapable.

This is the fundamental issue of the Exodus: how to be redeemed when Egypt, that enervating soulscape, has one in its pincer grip? From such a perspective, Israel in Egypt cannot be redeemed; no separation is possible—in the same way as, in terms of mythic thought, the baby held in the womb cannot be born, must remain monstrously but all-too-plausibly immobilized forever.

The peculiar suffering of such inertia haunts the midrashic accounts of the time before the Exodus: "No slave ever escaped from Egypt" (Mekhilta). What makes release possible, or, in midrashic language, what makes the people fit for redemption? What is the turning point in the history of this unarticulated misery? And what, again in midrashic language, is the secret of redemption?

"And they swarmed. . ."

—Blessing or Critique?

Exodus, the book of Exile and Redemption,2 begins with a list of names:

These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin; Dan and Naftali, Gad and Asher. The total number of persons that were of Jacob's issue came to seventy, Joseph being already in Egypt. Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation. (Exod 1:1-6)

These are the dead; listed, to tell the reader that they are no more. In Jewish tradition, the book is called The Book of Names: the reference is clearly to the names of the children of Israel, those individuals who, in a moment in history, went down to Egypt and died there, together with their brother, Joseph, who had preceded them.

What follows, however, on this meticulous listing of the dead, is an explosion of life, an almost surrealistic description of the spawning of a nation:

And the children of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them. (1:7)

Nameless, faceless, these too are the "children of Israel." How are we to read this description of their anonymous fecundity? There are two possible understandings. On the one hand, this is a celebration of fullness, of life burgeoning and uncontained. This reading would be a fulfillment of God's promise to Jacob: "Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation" (Gen 46:3).3 The redundant expressions of fertility have been read as denoting multiple births, healthy development, absence of fetal, infant, or adult mortality.4 In the midrashic readings, there is a miraculous, even a whimsical sense of the outrageous victory of life over death: these, for instance, take the six expressions of fertility (they were fruitful, they swarmed, they multiplied, they increased, very, very much) to indicate that each woman gave birth to sextuplets ("six to a belly").5

The affirmation of life contained in these pounding synonyms intimates, in its very excess, a transcendent order of meaning: "Even though Joseph and his brothers died, their God did not die, but the children of Israel were fruitful and multiplied. . ."6 The midrash here wants to decipher the cascade of births not only as blessing but as the "survival of God." The generation that connects with the meaningful past is all gone. But in some way that is not fully explained here, God expresses His undimmed vitality in the language of physical fertility.

An alternative reading of this passage, however, would take its cue from the ambiguous expression vayishretzu—"they swarmed." This can mean the blessing of extraordinary increase;7 but it connotes a reptilian fecundity, which introduces a bizarre note in a description of human fertility.8 In this second view, vayishretzu is a repellent description for a family fallen from greatness.

Seforno, the sixteenth-century Italian commentator, articulates this tragic historical reading most clearly. At first, he writes, there were individuals, named, highly evolved persons, who went down to Egypt. Immediately upon their deaths, names cease. What we have is masses of unindividuated "insect-like" conformists, whose whole effort is to assimilate to their surroundings, and whose unconscious drive is for lemming-like suicide:

After the seventy original immigrants had died, they inclined toward the ways of sheratzim, of reptiles (an uncomplimentary reference to the pagan nations, whose concerns are entirely this-worldly). They ran through their lives in a headlong rush towards the abyss (a pun on sheratzim/she-ratzim = "those who run.") (1:7)

1. Jan Assmann, Moses in Egypt: the Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997), 2.

2. This is Ramban's description of the theme of Exodus (Chavel [Hebrew], vol. 1, 279).

3. See Hizkuni on 1:7.

4. See Rashbam and Rashi on 1:7.

5. See Shemoth Rabba 1:7. The hypothesis about multiple birth is merely the basis for further speculation: perhaps each belly held twelve babies? Or sixty?

6. Shemoth Rabba 1:7.

7. Rashi bases the sextuple-birth idea on vayishretzu, presumably after the midrashic notion that sheratzim (reptiles) produce no fewer than six young at a time (see Pesikta d'Rav Kahana [10:85b]).

8. Compare the use of shiretzu in God's instructions to Noah after the flood (Gen 9:7), where it connotes both divine blessing and the compulsive drive to fill the denuded, post-flood world. Also, see my The Beginning of Desire, 10-17, for a discussion of the two axes of human experience—the horizontal, "swarming" axis, and the vertical, "dominating" axis--in the Creation narrative.

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