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.



Popular posts from this blog

Acts 3:11-21 - Questions for Reflection & Prayer

This week we continued looking at the story of Peter and John healing a lame man on their way to the Temple (Acts 3).  Indwelled with the Spirit of the Living God, Peter and John are close to the source of all life:  Jesus the Christ.  They are continuing to devote themselves to the habits and practices that will allow the fruits of the Spirit to grow within them, including devoting themselves to times of communal prayer on a daily basis.

Now, the crowds hear this news of the lame man's healing, and they run to see this man and to discover what power or technique has healed the man.  They discover the man standing next to Peter and John and assume that these two are "holy men," something many people were searching for in Jesus' day.  This same search still goes on today.  One way we seek a better life is to seek out celebrities, gurus and human leaders that we can put our faith and hope in.

Question for reflection:  How are we tempted in our culture to put our trust i…

Acts 2:42-47 - Questions for Reflection & Study

This past Sunday, we took a look at Luke's first summary passage in the story of Acts:  chapter 2, verses 42-47.  Here, Luke is presenting a billboard of what the Church looks like at its best.  He is trying to convince Theophilus that Christianity is worth his attention. 

The early Church captures what all of us are looking for, whether we know it or not.  This is a close community that truly cares for one another, where everyone truly is seen as a brother and sister, and where no one person is considered more or less important as the other.  Needs are being met.  There is joy in their fellowship. 

Take a moment to think about a time in your life when you experienced the joy and blessing of a deep, loving community?  Where was it, and what made this community so different?  What role did you play in this community?
Luke tells us the disciples "devoted themselves" to four essential practices.  The Greek word for "devoted" is one that is often used in the context…

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…