“Appreciating Rhymes”

Sh'mot, Exodus 1:1−6:1

D'Var Torah By: Jonathan K. Crane

"The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes." Though many ascribe this epigram to Mark Twain, no evidence of this has been found. Nevertheless, there is something quirky when current events remind us of prior ones. This is how I felt when I read the first chapter of Exodus.

The story about the unfolding scene in Egypt seemed eerily familiar. Here are a few features that caught my eye:

  • An all-powerful deity was keen to keep people busy. (Exodus 1:8-11)
  • There was an effort to deal shrewdly with those people. (Exodus 1:10)
  • A decree with lethal consequences was declared. (Exodus 1:16)
  • Female disobedience altered the course of history. (Exodus 1:17)
  • Inquiries (Exodus 1:18) and evasive responses (Exodus 1:19) ensued.
  • Serious consequences were meted out. (Exodus 1:20-21)
  • The all-powerful character enacted plan B. (Exodus 1:22)

Such features occur in another story - one from the beginning of all things: Creation itself. There, in the second chapter of Genesis, we encounter the Garden of Eden. It, like Egypt, is an oasis conducive for civilization to bloom. God, like Pharaoh, tasked the people with the upkeep of the place. Both God and Pharaoh proclaimed lethal consequences for anything that transgressed their plan. And when things went awry, they set about investigating what happened. Whereas in the Garden of Eden, God doled out dire consequences to all involved (Adam, Eve, and the snake), God extended positive consequences to Shifrah and Puah in Exodus. Finally, both God and Pharaoh executed a second plan once their first ones were foiled: God expelled the humans (just Adam, actually…twice) from the Garden of Eden, and Pharaoh charged the Egyptians-instead of the midwives Shifrah and Puah-to execute his plan.

Shifrah and Puah rightfully have received millennia of praise for resisting Pharaoh's evil scheme. Their civil disobedience, though, entailed more than not adhering to his plan to kill baby boys. They also made the boys live in Exodus 1:17, 18. According to the Babylonian Talmud (Sotah 11b), Shifrah and Puah gave those boys food and water, and in Rashi's view (ad loc, s.v., vatḥayenah), also hid the boys in their own homes and raised them. In short, they were givers of life, just like Eve (in Hebrew, Ḥava, whose name shares the same root as vatḥayenah) was the mother of all those living (Genesis 1:20). Through such unexpected and dangerous gestures of giving sustenance to nearby vulnerable males, all three women changed the course of history.

Regarding the notion of shrewdness, Pharaoh said to the Egyptians, " havah nitḥacmah lo" (Exodus 1:10), which is often understood to mean "Let us deal shrewdly with them." "Them" in this case meaning the numerous Israelites. The phrase could also mean "let us deal shrewdly with him" - meaning, with God. Perhaps, then, Pharaoh's concern was not about people, but about another deity, and the people were just pawns in that game. Something similar could be said about the snake in the Garden of Eden. It, too, maneuvered the humans in ways to challenge God. If this connection between the stories holds conceptually, it is also plausible linguistically.

Maimonides, in his "Guide for the Perplexed," says there are four kinds of wisdom or knowledge (cḥochmah): knowledge of God, knowledge of workmanship, knowledge of acquiring moral virtues, and lastly, "the [knowledge] of cunning (armah) and subtlety" (III.54). Armah is a particular quality common to both Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:25) and the snake (Genesis 3:1). In this connotative way, the early Exodus story and the early Genesis story do not repeat, but rhyme.

It's not just that these stories parallel each other. Some of the story lines converge. Both the Garden of Eden story and the story in this week's parashah set the scene for what immediately follows. Adam and Eve conceive Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-2) who, in turn, kick off the unfolding story of humanity's rocky encounter with moral existence beyond the confines of Eden. A Levite man and woman conceive a child (Exodus 2:1-3) who will help bring about the Israelites' wobbly transition to life beyond the bonds of slavery. These stories converge to trace humankind's sometimes awkward, sometimes awesome trajectory toward a more just existence. Some might think of the famous quip by Martin Luther King, Jr., "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." He quoted this phrase by Theodore Parker, a 19th century Unitarian transcendentalist, in a larger argument that just as sometimes bad people will prevail, we cannot assume history will conclude in some kind of utopia.

Justice requires work, not passivity. It involves protesting injustice, taking risks, leaving dangerous circumstances, disobedience in the face of complacency, taking on new responsibilities, and following through with commitments to one another-all of which occur in Exodus. In profound ways, the story of Exodus rhymes with the story of today; the rhymes reverberate all around us if we dare listen.

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