Skip to main content

Longing for Deliverance

For the first time, I am planning to participate in a Jewish Seder Meal, albeit one that has been slightly altered to fit the Christian tradition as well. I was thus very interested in the most recent Speaking of Faith on National Public Radio: Exodus, Cargo of Hidden Stories, which is a conversation Krista Tippett had with Dr. Avivah Zornberg, a leading scholar on Torah and Talmud.

Throughout the conversation, Tippett and Zornberg explore the meaning behind the story of the Israelite Exodus, and Zornberg utilizes the Jewish tradition of midrash to access several other stories or commentaries on the Jewish Exodus. I was particularly struck by the "mirror story", which was read on the program out of a fifth century Midrashic collection (Tanhuma Pekudei) ...

"You find that when Israel were in harsh labor in Egypt, Pharaoh decreed against them that they should not sleep at home nor have relations with their wives. Said Rabbi Shimeon bar Chalafta, 'What did the daughters of Israel do?' They would go down to draw water from the river, and God would prepare for them little fish in their buckets. And they would sell some of them, and cook some of them, and buy wine with the proceeds, and go to the field and feed their husbands. And when they had eaten and drunk, the women would take the mirrors and look into them with their husbands, and she would say, 'I am more comely than you,' and he would say, 'I am more comely than you.' And as a result, they would accustom themselves to desire, and they were fruitful and multiplied, and God took note of them immediately. Some of our sages said they bore two children at a time, others said they bore 12 at a time, and still others said 600,000. … And all these numbers from the mirrors. … In the merit of those mirrors which they showed their husbands to accustom them to desire, from the midst of the harsh labor, they raised up all the hosts."

This is indeed a striking story - unexpected in its sexuality and confidence (well, the sexuality piece shouldn't be all that surprising if you're familiar with other portions of the Torah). It is a strange thing to comment on given the other realities of the Israelite slavery and persecution: horrible work, intolerable masters, endless ridicule, loss of place and value in society ... to name a few. But, Dr. Zornberg has really taken to this story because it speaks so directly to a fundamental crisis in slavery and oppression: the loss of "desire".

Indeed, in the story of the mirrors one phrase is repeated twice: "accustom themselves to desire." Dr. Zornberg rightly says this is an "extraordinary expression, as if desire is something that simply has disappeared from their repertoire."

That can happen ... the loss of desire. Husbands and wives can become unaccustomed to desire, so overworked and overtaxed by life and stress and the harshness of industry that they grow impotent and un-desiring, passing nights away in quite islands of unfeeling. And it can happen to whole groups: an entire Midwestern city can grow so burdened and heavy-laden with worry, with the failure of industry and the crushing blows of cruel powers from far above and away that they too grow collectively impotent, uninspired and incapable of longing for life. And they too cease to touch and interact with one another in life-giving, pleasing manner.

That is the most henious act of slavery: to kill the desire for life and pleasure, to deaden us in our living, to truly make us less than human. And that is why I agree with Dr. Zornberg that one of the most courageous and excellent things to do in such drudgery is to endeavor "to accustom [ourselves] to desire".

Now, true: this is far different than pleasure for pleasure's sake. Pleasure for pleasure's sake is hiding from the pain, like the depressed factory worker whose life has become so empty that he must find life in some alternate reality, some state of intoxication that only drives him further into his despair and isolation. But, accustoming ourselves to desire is learning again to see life through the spectrum of hope and possibility. It is learning to say clearly to oneself, "while I cannot control the terrible persecution surrounding me and upon me, I can choose my own attitude, and I can choose to exercise my freedom, my humanity. I can refuse to be less than who God made me to be, even if the world forces me to be less."

There is unbelievable strength and vitality in learning to accustom ourselves to desire. It is as potent as sexuality, which is why we must be very ardent, playful and serious when we engage in either desire or sexuality. We must train ourselves to enjoy them both well at the risk of falling prey to the impotency of drudgery.

Wes

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Acts 5:1-11 - Questions for reflection & prayer

This past Sunday we looked at one of the more unsettling stories in the Book of Acts:  the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira.  As shared by Luke, this couple sold a piece of land and then proceeded to bring only a portion of the profit to the apostles - laying it at their feet for the good of the community.  However, what appeared to be their grave mistake (pun intended) was their collusion in claiming to have brought all the proceeds to the apostles when - in fact - they were keeping some back for themselves.  Peter announces first to Ananias the Lord's judgment, followed by a similar verdict being handed down to Sapphira a short time later.

Seen by itself, this is a strange story, but it begins to make more sense when we see it as "part of the whole."  The story of Ananias and Sapphira comes right after we hear once again of the community's unity and generosity, including their willingness to share their own goods and resources to take care of one another (ch. 4).  Th…

Acts 6:1-6 - Questions for reflection & prayer

As the Holy Spirit empowers the Christian community, new life emerges and new members are added.  This is a beautiful thing, and it is extremely important to point out that this is God's doing.  God is initiating diversity within the Christian community.  However, this also creates new tensions and new challenges.

Acts 6:1-6 gives us our first glimpse of a tension that will extend all the way to chapter 15, until the leaders of the early Church come up with a way to address the growing differences within the Christian family.  Some feel that they are being left out and that others are getting preferential treatment.  The Hellenized Christians feel they are getting the short end of the stick.

All of this is extremely relevant to thoughts and feelings occurring in our own day and age.  Across the spectrum, a majority of Americans feel like they face some form of discrimination.  But, it also points to an ongoing challenge we all face from time to time, the challenges that arise when…

Life in Greencastle: That Greatest Architect

God's peace to all of you on this beautiful Saturday afternoon.  I hope you are enjoying the warm sunshine.  Perhaps you are even still enjoying one last sunset at the beach.
We stayed fairly close to home this Spring Break, taking two short trips, including one to Turkey Run State Park and the other to Columbus, Indiana.  Anna and I had been longing to go to Columbus for quite some time.  Back in the day, we became friends with Emily and Manish Desai in our small apartment complex in Pasadena, both of whom had recently graduated with degrees in architecture from Cal Poly.  Manish would go on to earn his license in architecture and has designed a number of really beautiful spaces, including private residences but also a church out in the desert for a Native American tribe.  Anna and I have always appreciated Manish and Emily's aesthetic, which is why we knew to take note when they started telling us about Columbus, Indaina a number of years ago.  They didn't know much abo…