Friday, January 13, 2012

Parshat Shemot: Moshe as anti-hero

In his book, Moses and Monotheism, Sigmund Freud offers an alternative understanding of the Exodus story.  Most of his ideas have been rejected by biblical scholars, both religious and academic, but he has one insight that strikes me as extremely powerful.

There is a motif in ancient mythology, from the Babylonian Sargon, through Greek, Assyrian and Roman stories of Oedipus, Perseus, Heracles, Gilgamesh, and many others.  It is repeated in modern stories such as Tarzan and even Luke Skywalker of Star Wars.  The story goes as follows:  A royal couple is blessed with a child, but the parents are concerned with a threat to the child and hide the child from sight, often with a family of low status.  The child eventually grows to be a hero, learns of his heritage and comes into his royal birthright.

Freud's insight is that while Moshe's story conforms to this ancient theme in its structure, it turns the particulars on their head.  Rather than being born to a royal family and being raised in secret by peasants, Moshe is born to slaves and is raised in the Egyptian royal family.  His coming of age and discovery of his heritage is not a discovery of royal birthright, but rather a challenge to the social order, and a rejection of his people's slavery.

The basic message of the ancient hero motif is that "blood will tell" – a person born to royalty will grow into a hero by nature of their family qualities.  Moshe's quality is different – he is compelled by his own nature to confront injustice and seek peace: killing the Egyptian overlord, intervening in the fight between his Israelite brothers, and rescuing the Midianite women from their tormentors.  He is the anti-hero, not seeking challenges and glory, but retreating to his shepherding until called by God.

This former member of the royal household now enters the palace as the leader of a slave revolt.    The stage is set for a confrontation between the ancient idea of royal divinity, of the right of the elite to rule over and oppress the populace, and the then-new Torah concept that all people are created in God's image.  The social structure is not a divine rule, but an affront to divine justice.  It is Moshe's role to say, and to prove through the plagues, that Pharaoh is no more a god than the slaves he rules over.  He can be brought low by the true God of the land, who wants people to be free.  It is not enough that the Israelites leave; they must do so in a way that demonstrates to all, for all time, that an oppressive social structure is not only not endorsed by God, but abhorrent to the divine will.

(First written for my daughter's bat-mitzvah last year)

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