When Torah commands us to identify with the crowd at Sinai, it means for us to be one with the community of Israel. But can we identify with our fore-fathers and -mothers in the other sense of the word? Can the 21st Century New York apartment dweller imagine the experiences of a Middle Eastern desert tribe some two and a half millennia ago?
This week’s portion writes down the story of the early days of the 40-year expedition. Do we think, “How badly they behaved,” or do we think, “That’s just how I might have thought and felt and acted”? A pick of highly trained adventurers at the peak of their physical condition might have suffered thirst without complaining and not panicked at the prospect of starvation, but do we imagine ourselves to have been capable of doing so? Would we have been so dastardly as to hanker for the relative creature comforts of slavery? Yes, we might: I remember the phrase “Aber bei uns…” (“When we were living back at home”) that began so many recollections the refugees from Hitler told each other in the harsh early weeks and months of emigration.
It’s not only the men and women in the crowd whom we can imagine, but its overtaxed leader, and its enemies. Wonderfully, we are invited to imagine the Lord Himself. What He said and did is written in Torah. And maybe that’s not so wonderful after all, if we take the Lord’s mysterious word for it that He created the lot of us — the Children of Israel, Moses and the Amalekites — all of us descendants of the First Adam — in His own image.
We can surely imagine Moses, overwhelmed and exhausted as his father-in-law saw at a first glance. It wasn’t only the monumental task of adjudicating the quarrels erupting between the Children of Israel but the responsibility of keeping them fed and fighting off the attacks of enemies.
Are we allowed to identify with the Amalekites who attacked the Israelite crowd of refugees fleeing from enslavement and earned the Lord’s everlasting curse? The story gives no reason for the attack, but we know enough to know that is what tribes did and do and will go on doing. Tribes attack alien tribes. Tribes fight for their turf, fight to keep what they have and to get what they want. We can take it the Amalekites believed in some principle or divinity that told them they were in the right.
To return to Moses. He had another worry. He worried that the Lord would be angry with the Children’s grumbling and complaining. He was right. The Lord was angry, and not only with the Children; He was annoyed with Moses, who kept praying for help. You nag Me and nudge Me, the Lord seems to be saying. I put you in charge. Deal with it.
The God of whom we read in Exodus does not present Himself as the Transcendence whose Name we may not know, whose qualities are not available to the human understanding. He participates in this story in His role of father, something we human parents know something about. We can’t turn ourselves into clouds by day or columns of fire in the night, but our first concern is to lead our children; we yearn to place ourselves between them and their enemies. Like the Lord we take our children’s part against anyone who is against them and hurts them. Like the Lord we get upset when, after all that we have done for them, they grumble and complain and put their trust in everybody except us. Like the Lord we keep reminding them over and over of everything we’ve done, and we keep on doing and giving, as often as not with attached strings. The gift of water at Meribah is bitter; the manna comes with a lesson about the Sabbath. The lesson of the quail is the sadness of satiety.
Does the modern reader overreach across time and space to think that we can penetrate the otherness of a culture whose assumptions we cannot assume and which may understand everything differently from what we understand? I think that, so long as we take care to keep our conclusions permanently open to amendments and reversals, we must read what is written. Whether one believes it was God, or Moses or an intermediate human of great genius who did the writing; and whether it is history, or story, it invites us to look for ourselves in the many mirrors it holds up to our natures.
Lore Segal is a novelist, essayist and a writer for children. Her latest book is “Morris the Artist” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).