Dvar Torah For Parshat Shmot 5773.
I did my favorite New Year’s Eve thing by watching multiple episodes of the Twilight Zone, Rod Serling’s 1960’s classic about the paranormal. As campy and antiquated as the show and its special effects are to our jaded 21st century eyes, it always manages to suck me in with its themes of uncanny mystery: the bizarre and unexplained phenomena we encounter, the possibility of extraterrestrials, and the folks like you and me caught, well, in the twilight zone, what Bruce Springsteen refers to as the death waltz between flesh and fantasy, between reality and the mind’s dream state. I am particularly drawn to ironic episodes like the one about the bookworm who is the lone survivor of a hydrogen bomb attack, who can now read undisturbed for the rest of his life, yet who then smashes his reading glasses accidentally; to chilling, moralistic episodes like the one about the woman in a brave-new-world autocratic society who is sentenced to total quarantine with others like who her who are hideously ugly. The only problem is that, in fact, she and her fellow lepers are actually beautiful, while the rest of that society looks like ducks who have survived gamma radiation; or my all-time favorite episode about beings from another planet who convince the earth that they wish only to serve Man. In the last scene, as the hero of the episode is getting on a space ship to their world, his assistant desperately tries to stop him, shouting, “Professor, don’t go with them! That book they gave us about serving Man? I finally translated it. It’s a cook book!”
I laugh at what Serling considered to be serious drama but I get chills from Serling’s razor sharp insightfulness about the twilight zones of the human mind and life’s mysteries. I also appreciate one other important feature of this great American TV show: most of Serling’s characters are completely alone. They may intermittently interact with other minor characters, but they are mostly caught in a vast wasteland of human loneliness and alienation in which they are the last people alive, or the only people to see what no one else sees, or even people who have died who think they are still alive. Madness, loneliness, alienation and death are the main staples of the Twilight Zone, and I feel almost like I’m watching a Franz Kafka novel remade as sci-fi when I watch the show. This perhaps is what continues to make it so popular. Serling tapped into some of our deepest terror about loneliness with fantastic tales and morality plays that take the sting out of our fear by entertaining us.
Of late, I have been thinking about Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our teacher, as a Twilight Zone character, one who at every turn is never quite sure who, where or how he is. Look at the details of his early life. After his birth, his mother has to hide him for three months from the Egyptian authorities who want him, and all the Israelite males, dead. She casts him off in a basket, where he floats down the Nile only to be saved by none other than Pharaoh’s daughter, who then adopts him, ironically enough with the help of his own mother who serves as his nurse maid. Moses is raised as Egyptian royalty, but is chased out of Egypt after he kills an Egyptian slave driver in defense of an Israelite and is threatened with exposure by another Israelite. He saves his future wife and her sisters from rough necks at a well in Midian, then they promptly forget to show him hospitality, something almost unthinkable in Middle Eastern culture. He meets a God he has presumably never known, Who self identifies as his ancestors’ God, and Who draws him in with an unconsumed burning bush, a special effect that Rod Serling would have loved. Best of all, as Moses sets out to save the Israelites, God seeks to kill him out of anger that either he or his son has not been circumcised. This is a bizarre scene that dabbles in the demonic and fuzzy worlds of magic and blood rituals. Moses himself tells us the readers that he is living in his own Twilight Zone: he names his first son Gershom, “For I have been a stranger in a foreign land.”
What are we to make of our ancient Twilight Zone character? What do we learn from him? Bible scholars tell us that Moses’ life follows a literary theme commonly known as the abandoned hero motif. Generally, the hero is abandoned by his royal father or mother for some less than savory reason, with one or both parents ordering a simple peasant to destroy him. The peasant refuses to do so, or in another version, the abandoned hero is found in infancy by a kind peasant who raises him as his or her own. Often, the abandoned hero find his way back and reveals himself to the parent in a showdown between good and evil. Yet, Professor Nahum Sarna reminds us in his commentary on Exodus that we should not take the parallels too far. Moses’ mother, Yocheved, is no powerful queen seeking to get rid of her son, she is an oppressed Israelite who seeks to save him from genocide by sending him off. Even her abandonment of Moses is done in a way to insure that someone will find him and save him: she hides him in the reeds on the shore of the Nile River. In a keen reversal of the conventional abandoned hero motif, the one who saves Moses is herself royalty, Pharaoh’s daughter who uses her position yet also risks her life to courageously defy her father’s decree.
However, what I find most enlightening about Moses as the abandoned hero is that however absurd and liminal his experiences may be, he is never truly alone. His mother sends him off on the Nile, but then sends his sister to watch out and intervene for him. Pharoah’s daughter saves his life in defiance of her father, then brings him to the royal household right under her father’s nose. The Torah tells us that when he grows up, Moses goes out to consider the plight of his enslaved people, a hint that even as adopted royalty he already knows that he belongs with them and to them. Jethro, Moses’ father in law, makes him part of his household, God calls him to lead his people out of slavery, and even his brother Aaron makes an appearance in the story to become Moses’ partner in the work of liberation. Moses lives through strange and frightening encounters that likely make him feel alone, but a whole cast of actors, human and divine, are either behind the scenes or out front, helping him to make his way in his complex life.
It is callous and simplistic to assert that no one is ever truly alone, for we know that this is not the case for some people. Their lives are painfully solitary due to homelessness, the deaths of loved ones, a horrible family situation, mental illness or other circumstances. Perhaps Moses the abandoned hero is not a tale about what is but what ought to be, from the perspective of the Torah. Individualism is not a Jewish ideal, and I can think of no one in Jewish legend who fares well living outside the matrix of community and mutual obligation. For Judaism there is nothing heroic about going it alone, so that even after we die, the community remains fully involved in bringing us respectfully to our final resting places and in helping our grieving loved ones. The Torah and Jewish tradition challenge us to receive community from others by recognizing that we do not have to be alone at the margins of life, and to create community for others by recognizing that we are not alone at the center of life. Yes, a person may feel utterly abandoned by life and by God when dealing with loss, illness, death, grief and loneliness: how could anyone not in such times? Moses’ story hands us our mandate to walk compassionately with that person and all who feel alone and keep them connected so that they do not fall into the twilight zone.