A few years ago I committed to reading all of Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s available commentary for each week. I paced myself as best I could to get through a chapter a week from The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus, and Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers. She has two other books which I have perused but I don’t think I have read them in their entirety. One is a “biography of Moses” that was published within the last couple of years, after the year I had undertaken to reading her commentaries for each week’s parasha. The other is a book on Biblical Unconscious and draws out different stories from throughout the Tanakh and doesn’t follow a particular chronology, so I simply haven’t gotten around to reading some of those chapters yet. I’m still waiting anxiously for her to write books on Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Her writing is dense, full of references that range from psychoanalytic to ancient Midrash to classic works of arts and literature. It’s hard to read and brain-breaking and completely amazing.
There have been two chapters of hers that have sat with me and thoroughly changed the way I read Torah. One is a chapter on Genesis 2. Ironically, this is not from her book on Genesis but a stand-alone chapter about the Expulsion from Eden that appears in her book on Biblical Unconscious. The other is her chapter from The Particulars of Rapture written for this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo. I was struck by her observation of the “ungainly haste” of the Exodus, and this term has been completely stuck in my head since. For some reason, this year in particular, I cannot seem to think of anything else as I look through the Torah portion. In this chapter, Zornberg argues, with the help of traditional midrash, of course, that the Israelite slaves of Egypt were free at night. After the 10th plage, the death of the firstborn, Pharaoh commands them to get out of his country. But their first act of freedom is to ignore the plea of Pharaoh to hurry up and leave. They leave in the morning.
This parasha tells of the last three plagues and the tension is thick in the text as the Israelites prepare for the moment of their escape. As the tenth plague draws near, God tells the people Israel to sacrifice the paschal lamb, to put the blood on their doorposts so that God knows to pass over those homes as the Angel of Death goes through the land slaughtering the first born. Then, God tells the people to eat the roasted meat, along with the unleavened bread and the bitter herbs, and to do so in haste. Before night has even fallen, let alone before day has broken and the moment for hasty leave has arrived, God is commanding that these actions be done in haste. Matzah is not an accidental symbol of haste, a mistaken food created because the people left so quickly they did not have time to make leavened snacks for the road. Matzah is intentional, the haste is intentional. Rashi adds connotations of panic to his translation of the word “בחפזון” (haste).
In explaning to her readers the drawn out night of waiting and testing that precedes the Exodus, Zornberg establishes for us the “tableau of leaving, exodus,” a “tableau of release,” and a “tableau of readiness-to-leave.” In short, she paints a picture of the Israelite people biding their panicked time through the night, poised to leave at first light, quivering in darkness and their own silence as they hear the cries of anguish from the Egyptian households. They are ready to go all along, but wait in anticipation of this pre-planned panicked haste.
According to Zornberg, there are three moments in the narrative “when panic haste was central: one was at night – referred to as chipazon deMitzrayim [the haste of Egypt] – and was informed by the terrified pressure of the Egyptians on the Israelites to leave the country; while [another] was the following day – referred to as chipazon deYisrael [the haste of Israel] – the urgent flight of the Israelites by day.” The third is the “chipazon of God’s Presence.” In the narrative itself, it is visualized in the “leaping” (“bechipazon/ufasachti”- “in panic haste/I shall leap”) of the Passover story. Zornberg translates the verb pesicha (notice the connection to the noun pesach) to leap, adding a frenetic energy, a panic haste already to the movement of God, as distinct from our usual interpretation of “to pass over”. Combined with God’s own admission of “bechipazon”, we have a very strong illustration of God’s own wait and hurry narrative.
Zornberg says the effect of all these strands of the intentional panic haste narrative is to “postpone, till after the Splitting of the Sea, any sense of complete freedom.” I would argue a slightly more nuanced rephrasing. Although it does delay the sense of complete freedom until after the deaths of the Egyptians, I don’t see it as the holding back of freedom, as I read her commentary as suggesting. I read more of a sense of stages of freedom. A people oppressed for generations, they find themselves freed from one master, paradoxically, as Zornberg points out, only at the commandment of a new master. This new master has told them to remain until morning, so that even as the old master urges them out of his land, they timidly test the waters of their new affiliation to God rather than Pharaoh by staying put. One act of liberation against their old, cruel enslaver. As morning breaks, they burst forth, gather the spoils of Egypt and march out of the land of their oppression. A second act of liberation from their wretched lives as slaves. After the Israelites have safely made it across the sea, the waters rush in on the Egyptians, washing away any concern that the Israelites might face repercussions for their acts of defiance to Pharaoh or for their “borrowing” of the jewels and precious metals of Egypt. A final act of liberation. At which point, of course, the people are fully free to start whining about wanting to go back to Egypt and fear that God will be an even more hateful master than Pharaoh was.
“And when your children ask, What do you mean by this rite? You shall say, It is the Passover sacrifice to God, because he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when he smote the Egyptians” (Exodus 12:26). The commemoration of the Passover is to remember the paschal lamb that offered protection from the Angel of Death. But the Passover as a whole is also a reminder about the stages of freedom and our responsibility to uphold them. When the African slaves were freed in the United States, it took another hundred years to desegregate. Fifty years after that, we are still fighting for equality for all everyone. It is an unacceptably slow process that comes in stages. When the time comes that the nation, government, society as a whole is ready for change, those who are interested in fighting for it charge forward, with a panic haste, despite having been ready for this change all along. When the strong hand of forces unseen come down, they are forced to pause, hold back, tip toe slowly toward the next step, until another flash point flares up so that they can charge forward again. It’s really a bad system, but apparently one that humanity has been working with for thousands of years. The purpose of retelling our own people’s liberation stories year after year is to remind ourselves of the importance of our freedom. What the cost is for liberation. And how we must help others achieve theirs.