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Sundry Lessons of the Exodus

This week’s portion, Pekude, covers the last chapters of Exodus and so is a good place to try to draw some general lessons from our story of stories.

The poets have been finding metaphors and similes in Exodus for quite some time. John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892), for example, found in the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-6) an extended metaphor for autumn:

And when the miracle of autumn came,And all the woods with many coloured flameOf splendour, making summer’s greenness tame,Burned, unconsumed, a voice without a soundSpake to him from each kindled bush around,And made the strange new landscape holy ground!

And Melech Ravitch (1893-1976), also thinking of the burning bush, which rabbinic tradition told him was a thorn-bush, and speaking to God in Yiddish (translated into English by Ruth Whitman), found this way of protesting his unhappy but unshakable belief:

Not for nothing was one of your thousand names — thorn, you thorn in my spirit and flesh and bone,piercing me — I can’t tear you out; burning me — I can’t stamp you out.

And Alexander Pope (1688-1744), thinking of Aaron’s rod transforming into a serpent that ate up the serpents of Pharaoh’s magicians (Exodus 7:12), found this simile: “One master passion in the breast/ Like Aaron’s rod will swallow up the rest.”

And, more recently, Harvey Shapiro, thinking of Moses taking the bones of Joseph with him as he was leaving Egypt (Exodus 13:19) prior to the separation of the sea and the revelation at Sinai and all that followed, mused:

They wereOnly now drawn forthTo eat the history feastAnd begin the journey.Why then should they carry historyLike an ark, and the rememberingAlready begun?

And Jacob Glatstein (1896-1971), who had been born in Lublin, Poland, writing in New York after his parents had been murdered in the Majdanek concentration camp at Lublin, tells all surviving Jews in Yiddish, as translated by Ruth Whitman: “We received the Torah on Sinai/ and in Lublin we gave it back.”

And what about myself? What lessons can I draw from the great story? I’ll quote passages from Exodus and, after each quotation, I’ll state the contemporary lesson I draw from it in the form of one line of a rhymed poem.

* * *|

“And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; that they might go by day and by night” (Exodus 13:21).

Something will guide you; if not fire, a cloud.

* * *|

“And the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, beside children. And a mixed multitude went up also with them” (Exodus 12:37-38).

You’re a mixed multitude, don’t be too proud.

* * *|

“And when Pharaoh drew nigh, the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and, behold, the Egyptians were marching after them; and they were sore afraid” (Exodus 14:10).

You’ll be pursued by what you leave behind.

* * *|

“And when they were departed from Rephidim, and were come to the wilderness of Sinai, they encamped in the wilderness; and there Israel encamped before the mount” (Exodus 19:2).

This wilderness is where you’ll be divined.

* * *|

“And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter…. And [Moses] cried unto the Lord; and the Lord showed him a tree, and he cast it into the waters, and the waters were made sweet” (Exodus 15:23-25).

The water here is bitter; make it sweet.

* * *|

“And when the layer of dew was gone up, behold upon the face of the wilderness a fine, scale-like thing, fine as the hoar-frost on the ground. And when the children of Israel saw it, they said to one another: ‘What is it?’ — for they knew not what it was. And Moses said unto them: ‘It is the bread which the Lord hath given you to eat’” (Exodus 16:14-15).

Eat the strange food; it’s all you have to eat.

The complete poem, with its final two lines, is:

SUNDRY LESSONS

OF THE EXODUS

Something will guide you; if not fire, a cloud.You’re a mixed multitude, don’t be too proud.You’ll be pursued by what you leave behind.This wilderness is where you’ll be divined.The water here is bitter; make it sweet.Eat the strange food; it’s all you have to eat.You can’t turn back, of course. And can’t forget.And did escape. Why keep that amulet?

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