In the great modern exodus of Russian Jews from the Soviet Union during the 1980s, many of those who came to New York worked for a while as taxi drivers, as other immigrants have done before and since. On a day during this exodus I started a conversation with my Russian taxi driver by saying, “I’m Jewish, are you?” He replied, with a strong accent but in good English, “Yes, wonderful to say it with no anxiety.” He asked me what I did. “Well, I write poetry.” He became so exited he turned fully around, so that the eyes of his Slavic soul were looking directly at me in the back seat, as the cab sped at 50 miles an hour along 42nd Street. “Recite one of your poems for me!” “Sure, if you’ll turn around and watch where we’re going.” I recited this poem:
At the Sea of Reeds
It is said:
In each generation we exodus from Egypt,
reach the Sea of Reeds, look back in fear,
and protest to whoever led us there:
Why bring us to this desert just to die!
We’ll kill ourselves by drowning in the sea!
We’ll return to slavery and escape annihilation!
We’ll fight the forces of enslavement unaided!
We’ll shout, frighten them with noise!
But that generation — so goes another midrash —
stopped their complaint against circumstance
and entered those waters up to their toes,
up to their ankles, up to their knees
up to their lips, up to their nostrils,
and only then did the miracle occur.
The taxi driver was enthusiastic, and I was grateful for his enthusiasm — and for still being alive.
* * *
John Milton, in “Paradise Lost” (Book 12, lines 173 to 190), repeats the list of plagues with a weight of tone from his dense Latinate syntax, his mixture of end-stopped and enjambed meanings, and his word choice, as in his use and placement of the words “unshed,” “intrusion” and “emboss”:
But first the lawless tyrant, who denies
To know their God, or message to regard,
Must be compelled by signs and judgments dire:
To blood unshed the rivers must be turned;
Frogs, lice, and flies must all his palace fill
With loathed intrusion, and fill all the land;
His cattle must of rot and murrain die;
Botches and blains must all his flesh emboss,
And all his people; thunder mixed with hail,
Hail mixed with fire, must rend the Egyptian sky,
And wheel on the earth, devouring where it rolls;
What it devours not, herb, or fruit, or grain,
A darksome cloud of locusts swarming down
Must eat, and on the ground leave nothing green;
Darkness must overshadow all his bounds
Palpable darkness, and blot out three days;
Last, with one midnight-stroke, all the first-born
Of Egypt must lie dead.
* * *
I suppose the greatest midrash on the Exodus is George Frideric Handel’s choral work “Israel in Egypt.” No darshan could compete with Handel’s setting of Exodus 2:23, “And the children of Israel sighed by reason of their bondage,” with its ravishing drawn-out sighs of both voice and orchestra. The furious violins of the setting for the plague of flies, and the hopping rhythm for the frogs, give us interludes of wit in the great drama as William Shakespeare does. Then, after the setting of “He smote all the first-born of Egypt” (Exodus 12:29) comes the setting of “But as for His people”; the music critic Donald Francis Tovey comments that “One of the most perfect transitions, both in mood and harmony, in all music is that effected by the first chords of this wonderful chorus.” If I had to pick one setting as the most inspired I would choose, “He sent a thick darkness” (Exodus 10:22), which gives us the musical equivalent of the text’s “darkness which may be felt.” But we don’t have to pick and choose, we can listen to the whole masterpiece over and over again.
* * *
“The Jewish Cemetery at Newport” is one of Henry Wadsforth Longfellow’s greatest poems. The second stanza contains a stunning metaphoric use of the exodus theme:
The trees are white with dust, that o’er their sleep
Wave their broad curtains in the southwind’s breath,
While underneath these leafy tents they keep
The long, mysterious Exodus of Death.
The 10th stanza shows what for me was a surprising knowledge of the Seder service and makes good metaphoric use of its particulars:
All their lives long, with the unleavened bread
And bitter herbs of exile and its fears,
The wasting famine of the heart they fed,
And slaked its thirst with marah of their tears.
* * *
William Blake is passionate, dramatic and bold in his use of imagery from the Exodus to state his belief that “Israel’s paths” take us where reason cannot, to the other shore of an impassable sea:
Mock on, mock on Voltaire, Rousseau:
Mock on, mock on: ’tis all in vain!
You blow the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.
And every sand becomes a Gem
Reflected in the beams divine;
Blown back they blind the mocking Eye,
But still in Israel’s paths they shine.
The atoms of Democritus
And Newton’s particles of light
Are sands upon the Red Sea shore,
Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.
David Curzon is a contributing editor of the Forward and the author of “Midrashim” (Cross-cultural Communications, 1991), in which the poem “At the Sea of Reeds” was originally published.