Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Drawing Out: From Exodus to Exegesis

"By the merit of the righteous women who lived in that generation, the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt." So teaches the midrash in Tanchuma Pikudei 9, which goes on to tell the story of how Egyptian oppression was so great that the Israelite men lost all desire to sleep with their wives. The women, in an attempt to rectify the situation, went out to the fields to seduce their husbands. How did they do it? They would go out and draw water, and God would arrange that small fish should enter their jugs. The women cooked the fish and carried them out to their husbands in the field. When they had eaten and drunk, they took their mirrors and looked into them with their husbands. She would say, "I am more beautiful than you," and then he would say, "I am more beautiful than you," and as a result, they would awaken in each other desire, and they were fruitful and they multiplied.

This midrash tells the story of how the women succeeded in re-kindling desire in their husbands, thereby drawing them out from the misery of slavery. By the merit of these women who managed to draw out their husbands, God in turn drew the children of Israel out of Egypt.

This emphasis on "drawing out" finds its echo in the midrash on the four sons which we recite as part of the Haggadah. To draw out is the engage and to arouse someone's interest. Of the four sons, two naturally engage, and two are unable to do so. That is, the wise and wicked sons are eager to engage through their questions. They seem to genuinely want to know (whether out of intellectual curiosity or hard-nosed cynicism) what the rituals of Pesach are about. In contrast, the simple son and the one who does not know how to ask are able to engage only on the most minimal level, if at all. Mah zot? asks the Tam; and his brother cannot say even that.

The responses given to the sons reflect an awareness of their level of engagement. The wise and wicked sons, who have no problem saying whatever is on their mind, are given responses that signal restraint. The wise son is instructed in "the laws of Pesach, that we do not have an afikoman after the Pesach." Of all the laws of Pesach, why should this one be singled out? It seems important to teach the wise son is told that there are limits; no matter how much he may want to engage, even Kol Hamarbeh L'saper has its bounds. The wicked son is restrained even more forcefully -- his teeth are blunted, and he is told that even if he had been around at the exodus, he would have been excluded from redemption. God would have left him back in Egypt. He would not have been drawn out.

The simple son and the interrogatively-challenged one, in contrast, are drawn out -- they are given a version of the Pesach story that is far longer than anything they were able to articulate. The simple son is quoted a verse that serves as a one-sentence summary of the whole story: "It was with a mighty hand that the Lord brought us out of Egypt from the house of bondage." The response to the son who does not know how to ask, too, focuses on the process of coming out of Egypt: "This is on account of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt." With these answers, the father is to draw out those sons who are unable to engage deeply on their own.

The essence of the exodus--that is, what physically happened in Egypt--was a process of being "drawn out" from bondage. The metaphor most commonly invoked is that of giving birth -- Egypt was the birth canal of our people, we were "delivered" only after painful "labor," and the story itself would not have happened if not for the crucial intervention of righteous midwives. But perhaps another, equally-apt metaphor is that of exegesis. Exegesis, too, is a form of "drawing out" -- we draw out meaning from the Biblical text by means of our interpretations of that text .This is what we do at the Seder when we study the midrashim on parshat Bikkurim that form the core of the Maggid. We read meanings that others have drawn out of these verses, and we draw out our own meanings. The word "exegesis" comes from the Greek words ex (out) and hegeisthai (to lead) – exegesis is a form of leading out. Thus exegesis is, etymologically, an exodus. By engaging in exegesis, the seder enables us to experience the exodus on a whole new level -- we ourselves perform the act of "drawing out" that defined this key moment in the history of our people.

The Hebrew word for exegesis, midrash, comes from the root darash. It is interesting to note that the first time the verb darash appears in the Torah is in Parshat Toldot, where we are told that Rivka, who was experiencing difficult labor pains, went to "seek out" or "draw out" God. Rivka was thus the first person to engage in midrash. Maybe it really is by the merit of righteous women that we were redeemed, as the midrash puts it. Maybe the connection between the two metaphors --birth and exegesis-- is closer than we might have thought. And finally, maybe by engaging in midrash at the seder we are, through our acts of "drawing out," becoming God's partner not just in creation but also redemption.


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