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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

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