A TALE OF THREE GAZES
Born into a world of genocide, he is nurtured in fear. When he is three months old, his mother places him in a well-caulked box and sets him in the Egyptian river. In this way, she both fulfills and defies the Egyptian decree: “Every male child you shall cast into the river” (Ex. 1:22).
This is the stark framework of Moses’ early infancy. The story is complicated by the palpable tenderness of his mother’s gaze (“She saw him that he was goodly . . .” [2:2]). She hides him as long as she can, she lovingly waterproofs the box, she “sets” him into it, and she “sets” it among the reeds at the river’s edge. Another woman, Moses’ sister, also keeps her gaze fixed on him after he is placed in the river: “to know what would be done to him” (2:4). Yet another woman, Pharaoh’s daughter, sees him in his basket and is stirred to compassion. Under the watchful gaze of three women, he passes through death, from one life to another life.
THE EXILE OF THE WORD
His sister’s desire to know brings him through. But it is the stifling climate of not-knowing that characterizes the world into which Moses is born. The narrative of Exodus begins: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (1:8). The politics of genocide begin here. In the amnesia of a new king, the gratitude owed to Joseph—who had saved Egypt from famine— is forgotten, and with it all ethical consciousness. Suddenly, without warning, the shadows of envy, hatred, and murder begin to gather.
Not knowing underlies all of Pharaoh’s persecution policies. His arbitrary eclipse of recent history generates a historical crisis. Rashi considers two possibilities:
Rav and Samuel disagreed. One said, This was literally a new king. The other said, His policy was changed. “He did not know” means, He made himself as though he did not know.1Rashi to Ex. 1:8.
Whether he was actually a new king or a transformed one, it is difficult to imagine that he would not know Joseph—that he would not remember him or at least his historical impact. So Samuel allows for the possibility of repression, the strategy of un-knowing what one knows. “He made himself as though he did not know.” He actively refuses his own knowledge. Pharaoh’s mind numbs itself so as not to know.
Here, a chord is struck that will swell to epic proportions. In midrashic literature, the climate of Mitzrayim (Egypt) is one of not knowing, not seeing, not hearing, not speaking. Conceived in mystical terms, Mitzrayim is the site of meitzarim, straits, in which possibilities of memory, communication and understanding are narrowed. Here, even breathing becomes congested; the impact of slavery affects the life-rhythms of the sufferers (6:9). The Israelites are at first incapable of hearing the message of redemption, because of kotzar ruach—literally, shortness of breath (Ex. 6:9).
The new Israelite nation is represented at first by a high birth-rate but not a single voice. Mutely, the Israelites undergo the various torments that Pharaoh devises for them. When, finally, at the end of chapter 2, we first hear from them, inchoate cries of pain fill our ears. Four synonyms for crying are used, creating an effect of crazed, wordless suffering:
The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out. And their screams rose up to God. God heard their moaning (2:23–24).
As though no ordered understanding is possible, the sufferers know only the constricted reality of pain, which has the sinister power to “un-make” the world of meaning.2See Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 19–22 and passim. The language of the text records the traumatized sound-values of this world. Unexpectedly, these inchoate sounds are registered by God in four responsive verbs: “God heard . . . God remembered . . . God looked . . . God knew . . .” (2:24–25).
In this way, as though unable to remain impervious to human howls of pain, God enters the narrative. His name is repeated four times, with the hypnotic effect of a significant and yet uncanny process. Repetition tends to reduce an utterance to meaninglessness. This God who is so suddenly responsive has been unaccountably absent from Egypt until now. His sudden presence makes palpable His longstanding absence.
Rashi comments: “And God knew . . .”—“He paid attention to them and no longer hid His eyes.” Rashi marks this juncture as a turning point in the narrative. Where before God had been insensible to the suffering of the Israelites, He now hears, remembers, sees, knows. A successful connection with the divine has been made—no small achievement in the straitened Mitzrayim world. Life stirs within a mute and darkened existence. To cry out is to breach the fatality of such a world.
The term that is used in classic mystical texts to describe this constricted condition is Galut ha-dibbur—the Exile of the Word. Language itself suffers a kind of alienation; it loses its force and is lost to human access. At its extreme, even the rudimentary visceral language of moaning and wailing fails to break through. The first stirrings of protest are therefore highly significant. In mystical and Hassidic texts, such stirrings, the cry and the groan, constitute the first movements of the divine within the human. They intimate an imaginable possibility— of desire, of prayer, of language.3See Mei HaShiloah Shemot (2). He reads Psalms 66: “Blessed be God Who has not removed my prayer and His love from me” as suggesting that the human possibility of prayer is in itself an expression of divine love.
In the exiled state, language is repressed. A Pharaoh who does not know Joseph has denied vital links with his own past history. A traumatic absence haunts his realm. His edicts blunt feeling and awareness, even the awareness of pain, even in his victims. Eventually, this Pharaoh will answer Moses in their first confrontation, “Who is God that I should listen to His voice? . . . I do not know God!” (5:2). Pharaoh’s passion for ignorance—and for deafness—will develop over the course of the ten Plagues as, time and time again, Moses and Aaron’s pleas fall on deaf ears: And Pharaoh did not listen to them.
The portrait of Pharaoh’s imperviousness even to his own suffering, the compulsive “hardening” of his heart, becomes a refrain throughout the Plague chronicle. Apparently unable to grasp his own history, he enacts a kind of traumatic absence from his own experience.
More poignantly, the notion of the Exile of the Word intimates the unconscious pathology of the Israelites, who are its true victims. Time and again, Moses will protest against his messenger-role: “They will not believe me; they will not listen to me” (4:1). And indeed, as we have noticed, “they did not listen to Moses as a result of exasperation [lit., shortness of breath] and harsh labor” (6:9). And again, “How will Pharaoh listen to me, if they have not listened to me?” (6:12). An epidemic of deafness makes language futile. How should Moses speak in such a world?
One powerful midrashic reading imagines God as holding the displaced consciousness of an inert people. At the Burning Bush, God introduces Himself to Moses as One who sees His people’s afflictions, who hears their cries and who “knows their pain” (3:7). Here, God comments on His own sharpened sensitivity in relation, specifically, to human pain. Here again, Rashi glosses: “I have paid attention to contemplate and know their pain: I have not hidden My eyes, nor shall I block My ears to their cry.” God, at this juncture, is no longer unconscious of human suffering. He departs from a habitual apathy, from an exiled state. But another midrash goes further: “Dead flesh does not feel the scalpel, but I do know their pain, which they themselves do not feel.”4Lekach Tov in Torah Shelemah Shemoth 126.
In this radical midrash, God constitutes Himself as the site of lost feeling. A traumatized people are compared to “dead flesh.” When God “feels for them,” He, on some level, represents that stirring to sensibility that will restore the dead to life. Divine empathy becomes the holding place for absent experience.
Freud opens his discussion of traumatic neurosis with the example of the survivor of a “shocking accident, for instance a train collision.” Although he is apparently unharmed, the survivor eventually, after what Freud calls an “incubation period,” develops grave symptoms. This phenomenon of latency characterizes the traumatic experience itself. The fact that the victim was, in a sense, not fully present during the accident becomes the eventual ground for its delayed experience. As Cathy Caruth puts it, “The space of unconsciousness is, paradoxically, precisely what preserves the event in its literality.” The paradox that emerges is that “the impact of a history is conveyed, precisely, as what cannot be grasped in the event.”5Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 17–18.
Trauma does not refer to the damage to the nervous system but to “the effects produced on the organ of the mind.”6Ibid., 61. Here, fright plays a role, and the sense of having missed the experience. Belatedness is inherent to traumatic experience— followed by repetitions of the event in the form of nightmare and fantasy, attempts to master what was never fully grasped in the first place.
In the light of Caruth’s discussion, we can understand the Israelites’ “apathy” in the face of their own suffering as a traumatic response to the catastrophe of genocide. The Exile of the Word, which affects all protagonists in the constricted meitzarim world, is conceived in mystical sources as part of a metaphysical condition. But in its lived experience, there is a sense precisely of missed experience, of an unfathomable possibility. Charles Dickens’s Mrs. Gradgrind knows there is a pain somewhere in the room, “but I couldn’t positively say that I have got it.”7Charles Dickens, Hard Times (New York: Signet Classics, 1961), 198. For the Israelites, God holds that pain in storage. To appropriate their own pain would allow them, in the full sense, to leave Egypt. Clearly that will not happen overnight; it will require a process for which the wilderness wandering will provide space and time.
“WHO AM I?”
Meanwhile, in the world of exile, Moses is to play the central role. He is to be the redeemer, the spokesman between God and the Israelites, God and Pharaoh. He will carry words across gulfs so that they are made good in the world. To this task God urgently summons him: “Moses! Moses!” And commands him, “You shall free (ve-hotze) my people Israel from Egypt” (3:4, 10). These first words of God to Moses evoke from the outset the issue of hotze, of extracting, bringing out. These words emerge “from out of the Burning Bush,” from the thorny complexity of human pain.8See Shemot Rabba 2:7: “God said to Moses, Do you not feel that I am in distress, just as Israel is in distress? Be aware that the place from which I speak to you is in the midst of thorns, I am their partner in distress!” This is the site from which God addresses Moses, simply asking to be extracted, in His involvement with His people, from the closed world that is tzara, the constriction in which one cannot move without further anguish.9The midrashic proof-texts accompanying such passages of involvement are typically, “I am with him in his distress” (Ps. 91), and “In all their troubles He was troubled” (Isa. 63:9). God is with His people, He is in their troubles. Like them, He is submerged and seeks to emerge.
An eruption from out of silence, these words open a channel in the depths of Moses’ being. “Here I am!” he responds, in the manner of Abraham before the Binding of Isaac. A shaft has penetrated him. But his next words are “Who am I?—that I should go to Pharaoh and extract the Israelites from Egypt?” (3:11). Moses’ reaction to the divine call is ambivalent: he is ready to serve, but he doubts himself. Like other prophets after him, he expresses his sense of inadequacy to the role that God assigns him. But his question, “Who am I?” stands alone, starkly separate from the immediate context, just as he stands alone among prophets.
For Moses, this is the essential question, “Mi Anochi? Who am I?” This is his intimate response to God’s claim on him, “I am the God of your father.” In midrashic commentary, God speaks in a recognizable voice, so as not to shock the amateur prophet: He assumes his father’s voice.10Shemot Rabba 3:1. But in all questions having to do with Moses’ parentage, an ambiguity inheres. Does Moses in fact know his biological father’s voice? In the biblical text there is nothing to suggest that he has any contact with his birth family once he is adopted by the Egyptian princess. The ambiguous reference to the father’s voice begs the question: Which father? How well does Moses know his birth father’s voice? God’s voice evokes Moses’ sense of dual identity. Quite naturally, in this case, he responds out of his own duality: “Who am I?”—“How does my identity qualify me for this role?”
For Moses the issue of identity is fraught with ambiguity from the beginning. The opening scenes of his story yield two mothers, a narrative of birth, death, and rebirth. Although the princess, in retrieving him from the river, identifies him as “one of the Hebrew children,” she clearly regards herself as “birthing” (mosheh) him from the waters that are death to Hebrew children. And when Miriam hires, in the princess’s name, a “wet nurse from the Hebrews”—Moses’ birth mother—the arrangement is clear: it is a commercial transaction in which the birth mother is paid for her services. She suckles her own child “for” the princess.
Returned to life from the Egyptian river, Moses is restored to his mother’s breast. But this is an ambiguous return: the true mother is a hired proxy for another mother. When the child “grows” (2:10), at the appropriate moment of development, his birth mother brings him to Pharaoh’s daughter—a movement inward, into an interior—“and he was to her a son.” She is now to all intents and purposes his mother. She names him Moshe— in Egyptian, “son”—and explains the name: “for I drew him out from the water.” The Hebrew puns on Egyptian and Hebrew meanings for the Moshe root: her motherhood is based on her gift of life to the child, whom she has extracted by the force of her compassion from the fatal river.
Moses’ double identity is subtly, ironically etched in his complex birth story. Son to two mothers, what does he know in his Egyptian life of his previous life? Does he remember his Hebrew origins? If this is a story of salvation, its parameters are fraught with questions. This story of salvation holds repression at its heart. The conventional narrative movement of loss and retrieval, trouble and resolution, is interrupted; Moses’ subjective experience remains largely obscure.
When he is restored to his birth mother, does the milk of her breast taste the same as it did before he was put in the river? During the palace period, does he remember—or, is he told of—his birth mother, her complicated milk? The text is silent on this, but the rupture with his birth family seems stark.
THE UNCANNY BOND OF BROTHERHOOD
However, when he does emerge from his Egyptian cocoon, the narrative startles us: “Moses grew and went forth to his brothers, and he saw their suffering” (2:11). This can be read simply to indicate that his purpose was to find out more about the slave people who, he is aware, are his birth nation. On this view, he is intentionally reconnecting with a past that still lives in his memory. This would be reinforced by another phrase in the same verse, where the slaves are again described as his birth nation: “He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew man, one of his brothers.” Perhaps, after all, Moses has always known of his kinship with the Hebrew slaves; on this day, he sets himself, as their brother, to see their sufferings.
However, there are other possible narratives. Perhaps, as we originally assumed, the young prince does not know of his connection with these slaves. Perhaps it is the narrator who refers to the uncanny bond of brotherhood between prince and slaves. This would then be a moment of dramatic irony, since the narrator and the reader know more than the protagonist. Or, perhaps, fraternity is precisely what Moses discovers, when he emerges from a clear and untroubled Egyptian identity. Precisely when he witnesses human suffering, a new fraternal consciousness arises within him. Once he allows himself to see, he arrives obliquely at a knowledge of brotherhood. This is the meaning of va-yigdal—“he grew”: this is his first crisis of maturation.
In a fit of empathy with the victim, he kills the Egyptian tormentor—almost as though in self-defense. The next day, when he again emerges—as part of this crisis of development— from the palace, there is no seeing. Instead, there is a hineh—the shock of an incomprehensible event: two Hebrews in violent combat. The aggressor taunts Moses with his own violence of yesterday. To this, Moses has no response other than to flee the vengeance of Pharaoh. The discovery of “wickedness,” aggression, and malice, even among the victims, complicates his spontaneous act of identification. Here, the word “brothers” is no longer used. He apparently recognizes nothing of himself in this second scene.
On this reading, Moses’ separation from his origins is quite complete. It is precisely his brothers’ suffering that intimates a strange kinship. Beyond conscious awareness, a profound chord is struck. Something of this notion is suggested in midrashic reflections on Moses’ first act in the world. The infant Moses hidden in the caulked box or basket in the reeds is first perceived by the princess as a na’ar bocheh—a “crying youth.” His cries elicit her compassion and her identification of him as “one of the Hebrew children.” But the expression na’ar, youth, jarringly evokes a much older child. It disrupts the classic scene of womanly compassion aroused by a baby’s cries. The Talmud comments: “R. Yehuda said, His voice was like a young man’s. R. Nehemia objected: But if you say so, you have given Moses a blemish!”11Exodus Rabba 1:28. In itself, this interchange between sages is deeply expressive. R. Yehuda focuses on Moses’ voice, which is mature beyond his years. In objecting, R. Nehemiah intimates that such precociousness would be a physical peculiarity, a form of disability.
But another midrash carries the idea of an over-developed organ even further.12Tzror HaMor. The na’ar in the text evokes another na’ar: “For Israel is a youth and I love him” (Hosea 11:1). In the words of Hosea, God loves Israel as one loves a young man who is volatile, full of turbulent energy. By offering this verse as a proof-text, the midrash suggests that Moses is precociously identified with his people’s pain, giving voice to a transpersonal anguish. Perhaps it is the princess who hears the baby’s voice as expressive of a larger trauma?
Her perception of the infant is also deepened in another Talmudic reading: “She opened [the box] and saw him, the child” (2:6). “She saw God’s Presence with him.”13B. Sotah 12b. The Talmud may be reading et ha-yeled as “with the child.” Perhaps she sees some kind of aura surrounding the child, as indicated by the double object in the biblical verse. Like the baby’s birth mother, she sees in the light of love. Her gaze is filled with desire for all that the baby may mean.
The child Moses weeps and expresses a pain larger than he knows. The gaze of the princess confirms his original mirroring in his birth mother’s eyes. But at the same time, a rupture now begins. Handed back and forth between mothers, one claiming him, the other feeding him, his identity becomes a question rather than a given. “Who am I?” he protests when God would cast him in the redeemer role.
The same Talmudic discussion interrupts the apparently unbroken narrative in which a wet nurse is hired. Before he is assigned to the Hebrew wet nurse, there is a suppressed episode in which many Egyptian candidates are tried out. This would be a natural first step, since the royal household would have retained a staff for this purpose. “But he would not nurse! God said, “The mouth that is destined to speak with My Presence should not nurse from an impure source!”
This infant is fastidious, his mouth already haunted by his future. The primal bond between infant and breast is troubled by thoughts beyond his grasp. His mother is restored to him only after she is thoroughly lost in a world of phantom breasts.
Is it surprising, then, that this infant will weep with a voice beyond his years—as though he knows what he cannot yet know? Or that this voice will be imagined as representing a “blemish”? Later, at the Burning Bush, he will try to express a kind of dis-ease in the mouth, an oral blockage: “I am not a man of words . . . heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” (4:10). And still later: “I am of uncircumcised lips!” (6:12, 30). This is the only direct description Moses ever gives of his inner life. It may refer to an actual stammer; more importantly, it expresses an intimate experience of, precisely, galut ha-dibbur, the Exile of the Word. In his mouth, a metaphysical condition takes on immediate reality. What he has to say, he feels, will be stifled at birth: no one will hear, neither Pharaoh nor the Israelites.
Marina Tsvetayeva quotes Pushkin on the ways in which words can fail: “There are two kinds of obscurity: one arises from a lack of feelings and thoughts, which have been replaced by words; the other from an abundance of feelings and thoughts, and the inadequacy of words to express them.”14Marina Tsvetaeva, Dark Elderberry Branch: Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva, trans. Jean Valentine and Ilya Kaminsky (Farmington, ME: Alice James Books, 2012), 40.
From Moses’ own idioms, we understand that he experiences an excess of “feelings and thoughts,” a kind of congested intensity, as sealing his lips. We remember the benign narrative of how he comes to nurse at his own mother’s breast; but also the shadow version in which the obscure pain of a larger world haunts his instinctual life even in infancy. His natural appetite must yield to a destiny of speaking to God. There is a rupture between the uses of the mouth; some basic trust in the world is put in question.
In the wilderness, he will cry out to God his strangest protest at the role that has been imposed on him:
“Did I conceive all this people, did I bear them, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a wet nurse carries an infant,’ to the land that You have promised on oath to their fathers?” (Num. 11:12).
Moses’ troubled relation with the Israelites is figured in a rhetorical, a preposterous question: What is he—a mother who carried a pregnancy to birth, or at least a wet nurse—that he should be so burdened with the weight of this people? Satirically, he projects an image of himself with the body of a woman, or some hybrid figment of an omen—a male wet nurse—with breasts to feed a hungry infant. The surrealistic fantasy expresses his sense that he is miscast in the role of nurturer. He was once the infant whose mouth was in some way mismatched with the world.
His protest is both poignant and grotesque, as was his original self-description as “of uncircumcised lips.” Together, the hybrid fantasy—lips, foreskin, the male body crossed with a fictional female body—constitutes a “raid on the inarticulate.”15T. S. Eliot, “East Coker,” in Four Quartets, V, 179 (San Diego: Harcourt Inc., 1943).
For the irony is that Moses who cannot speak can articulate so powerfully a fragmented state of being. Desiring to be whole, he graphically describes a composite identity. Body parts are attached incongruously. Desire and recoil inhabit his imagery. An inexpressible yearning can find only imprecise representation. Language is in exile and can be viscerally imagined as such. This both disqualifies him and, paradoxically, qualifies him for the role that God has assigned him.
“FOR THE SAKE OF ISRAEL”
In the moment of the people’s greatest failure, the sin of the Golden Calf, God abruptly tells Moses, at the summit of Mount Sinai, “Go on down, for your people have become corrupt” (Ex. 32:7). “Your people,” God calls them, urging an identity. The Talmud glosses this rather fiercely: “I granted you greatness only for the sake of Israel. Now, Israel have sinned, what are you to me? Instantly, Moses’ energy slackened, he had no strength to speak.”16B. Brachot 32a.
The greatness assigned to Moses was always involved with language. It is only in his identity as speaker for the sake of Israel that he can speak at all. He belongs at the base of the mountain with his people, who constitute the ground of his being. Hearing this, a weakness overwhelms him. Just when God is inviting him to advocate “for the sake of Israel,” he is dumbfounded. What God requires of him for the sake of Israel is, in every sense, beyond him.
Buber’s articulation of the paradox of prophecy comes to mind: “It is laid upon the stammering to bring the voice of Heaven to Earth?”17Martin Buber, Moses: The Revelation and the Covenant (New York: Humanity Books, 1958), 59. Here is the burden of prophecy that lies so heavy on the stammering prophet.18Massa, “burden,” is the term used in the prophetic books to refer to the commissioning of the prophet. His destiny is yoked with his people’s in ways that he cannot at first fathom. Heaviness is everywhere, both inside his mouth and in his relation with a people who are “his” only by way of a mother who has receded into oblivion. He has been shot into a future that he cannot recognize as his own.
However, if he cannot speak, it is because there are too many voices, births, and languages claiming his ownership. Like all identities, his Egyptian identity comes to him from outside: from the name the princess gives him, which is the name he bears, despite other possible names that brush against him in the course of the narrative.19See Lev. Rabba 1:3, B. Batra 15a, for other names identifying Moses. He is the one who has been “drawn out” of death and who is destined to draw others out.20See Is. 63:11. But he is identified by the Midianite girls as an “Egyptian man” (2:19). “Who am I?” Haunted by a past beyond grasping and a future not fully his own, handed from mother to mother, he lives in a state of suspended animation. Even as his destiny is revealed to him, he has yet, in a sense, to be born.
One startling midrash traces God’s promise at the Burning Bush—“I will be with your mouth and I will teach you (ve-horeiticha) what to speak” (4:12)—to the root harah, “I will conceive you,” “I will create you anew” (lit., “as a new creation”).21Shemot Rabba 3:20. Instead of curing Moses of his speech problem, God reaffirms the paradox that Buber articulates. Moses’ mouth is precisely what God has chosen. But He will be with his mouth, He will implicate Himself in the issues of his mouth. God invites Moses to open his whole being to a kind of rebirth. Already twice-born, he is to surrender to yet another transfiguration. This midrashic reading is of course well submerged in the text, a repressed meaning that alludes to repressed meanings in Moses’ life.
The need for an unrealized part of his being to come to light haunts his childhood and youth. On one level, this means a full awareness of his double identity, a deeper acknowledgment of the ways in which he is indeed of and for his Israelite people. On another level, frozen voices of pain within him ask to become audible.22See Françoise Davoine and Jean-Max Gaudillière, History beyond Trauma (New York: Other Press, 2004), 254. In Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, the hero hears voices at sea which turn out to come from the submerged site of a naval battle in which all disappeared with all their possessions. The terrifying noises of the battle “froze in the air. But now that the hardship of winter has passed . . . they are melting and are heard.” It is precisely through his mouth that he will reclaim his own experience.
In the meantime, Moses is, in the words of the midrash, a “novice prophet.”23Shemot Rabba 3:1. In other words, a na’ar, still the precocious infant-youth crying in the reeds, still anticipating a destiny unrealized. He lives within closed spaces, hidden in his mother’s house; in the box, in the river; in the palace; burying the dead Egyptian in the sand; hearing God calling from within the Bush, hiding his hand within his bosom. God urges him to “bring forth” what is incubating within him: to utter, to redeem, to expose to the light. The submerged is to emerge. The prospect is daunting, as when God stages for him his own hand emerging from his bosom, “leprous as snow” (4:6). Everything is at risk, to the limit of life itself.
LOST IDENTITIES: DERONDA AND AUSTERLITZ
This stage of suspended animation characterizes the experience of lost identity in European novels of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Indeed, in some works the theme of lost Jewish identity, as a personal and a national condition, quite pointedly invokes the Moses-foundling situation. These works deflect our reading of Moses’ life so as to bring the question of his identity, shadows and all, from the margins into the center.
Take, for instance, two major novels, George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda and W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. In George Eliot’s novel, the hero grows up as son of an English aristocrat. In his twenties, he discovers that his parents are European and Jewish. His mother reveals how, as an ambitious young singer, she gave him to a friend, an English aristocrat, to rear as his own. This common theme in Victorian literature—the abandoned child, the lost parents—is here complicated by the fact that Deronda acquires a more illustrious pedigree when he is thus adopted; and, at the same time, loses the hidden majesty of his Jewish ancestry.
Beyond the plot-dimension, George Eliot centers her novel on the state of suspended animation in which Deronda finds himself during the years before his origin is revealed. He suffers from an “oppressive skepticism, which represented his particular lot,” from an “afflicting doubtfulness” about how much weight to give this pervasive emotional experience. His anger with his mother for robbing him of his “birthright” is set against her passionate rebellion against her father who imposed that birthright, with all its constraints, upon her.
The indecisiveness, the double darkness from which Deronda suffers is shot through with hope when he meets Mordecai, the impoverished Jewish intellectual who “adopts” him as his spiritual heir, at first without any evidence that he is, in fact, Jewish. The transitional state that Deronda inhabits before his mother reveals the truth gives its tone to the whole book, and particularly to Deronda’s interest in Gwendolen’s character and moral situation. This is a state of uncanny longing for some other world of identity and commitment. His energies are becalmed yet restless. He feels himself subject to what he later describes as an “inherited yearning—the effect of brooding thoughts in many ancestors.”
Suppose the stolen offspring of some mountain tribe brought up in a city of the plain, or one with an inherited genius for painting, and born blind—the ancestral life would lie within them as a dim longing for unknown objects and sensations, and the spell-bound habit of their inherited frames would be like a cunningly-wrought musical instrument, never played on, but quivering throughout in uneasy mysterious moanings of its intricate structure that, under the right touch, gives music. Something like that, I think, has been my experience.24George Eliot, Daniel Deronda (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 642.
Moses is invoked to represent the unconscious preparation for a great destiny offered by “another” identity and culture:
And if it seems that the erring and unloving wills of men have helped to prepare you, as Moses was prepared, to serve your people better, that depends on another order than the law which must guide our footsteps (641).
Like Moses, Deronda has been guided by an ethical desire. But dark intimations have haunted him, exacerbating the “doubleness” in which he lives. Identified by others as Jewish, he lacks the memories that might confirm such an identity. Unwilling to disappoint Mordecai, or his own dreams, he is nevertheless reluctant to yield to wishful thinking.
Once his ancestry is established, Deronda assumes with joy the obligation that both he and Mordecai envision: to lead the Jewish people to their ancestral home in Palestine. Personal identity and national salvation reflect and engender each other. His mother’s worst fears are fulfilled, as is his grandfather’s dearest desire. “Every Jew should rear his family as if he hoped that a Deliverer might spring from it” (568).
If the figure of Moses haunts George Eliot’s narrative of redemption, it plays a different role in W. G. Sebald’s meditation on bereavement and bereftness. Austerlitz is the foundling raised to a life of unfathomable anxiety by a bleak Welsh couple who adopt him as a Jewish Kindertransport refugee from Prague. Exiled child of doomed parents, he is haunted by visions of star- shaped fortresses, of fog and trains and windmills. His native tongue dies away after lingering for a while, “like something shut up and scratching or knocking, something which, out of fear, stops its noise and falls silent whenever one tries to listen to it” (138).25W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz, trans. Anthea Bell (New York: Random House, 2001). His Jewish childhood returns to him only after a breakdown and the accidental overhearing of a radio broadcast in which another survivor recounts her memories.
It returns, however, in spectral form, through the memories of his nanny in Prague, through hallucinatory fragments perceived as he travels by the same train route, from Prague to London, as in childhood; and through his fantasy of a twin brother, who had been with him during that long journey, “and whenever I thought of him I was tormented by the notion that toward the end of the journey he had died of consumption and was stowed in the baggage net with the rest of our belongings” (225).
Austerlitz knows only of loss—a cloudy apprehension that is gradually filled out by fantasy as much as by facts. He is the dead child whose losses become palpable. In the following passage, he remembers the Welsh children’s Bible where he had learned by heart the chapter “about the confounding of the languages of the earth” (55). He remembers then
how anxious I felt at the time when I read the tale of the daughter of Levi, who made an ark of bulrushes and daubed it with slime and with pitch, placed the child in the ark and laid it among the reeds by the side of the water—yn yr hesg as fin yr afon, I think that was how it ran. Further on in the story of Moses, said Austerlitz, I particularly liked the episode where the children of Israel cross a terrible wilderness, many days’ journey long and wide, with nothing in sight but sky and sand as far as the eye can see. I tried to picture the pillar of cloud going before the people on their wanderings “to lead them the way,” as the Bible puts it, and I immersed my self, forgetting all around me, in a full-page illustration showing the desert of Sinai looking just like the part of Wales where I grew up. . . . I knew that my proper place was among the tiny figures populating the camp. I examined every square inch of the illustration, which seemed to me uncannily familiar. I thought I could make out a stone quarry in a rather lighter patch on the steep slope of the mountain over to the right, and I seemed to see a railway track in the regular curve of the lines below it. But my mind dwelt chiefly on the fenced square in the middle and the tent-like building at the far end, with a cloud of white smoke above it. Whatever may have been going on inside me at the time, the children of Israel’s camp in the wilderness was closer to me than life in Bala, which I found more incomprehensible every day. (55–58)
Austerlitz is possessed by an alternative life, in a Welsh Sinai wilderness, complete with a camp, a quarry, a railway track, a tent-building (Holy of Holies!), which emits ambiguous smoke. Biblical quotations return to him in Welsh, the language of his amnesia. He includes the double-paged illustration from his children’s Bible, which he had examined so minutely. The sense of something “uncannily familiar” finds nothing in reality to ground it. Instead, it creates an uncanny longing.
Unlike Deronda, Austerlitz achieves no sense of salvation, only rejection and annihilation. Anxiety attacks follow his discovery of identity, affecting his tongue and palate, “as dry as if I had been lying in the desert for days.” His heart palpitates in his throat; he feels like screaming but cannot utter a sound (228–29). These traumatic symptoms again pick up associations with the history of Moses, dumbfounded, heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue, encumbered by uncircumcised lips.
Born into a world of genocide, Austerlitz is a modern reincarnation of the biblical Moses figure, who, even in infancy, wept in unconscious solidarity with his people’s pain. Sebald invests Austerlitz with just such a sensibility. Austerlitz is haunted by his memory of a sixteenth-century Belgian painting, particularly of a woman fallen on the ice: “I feel as if [this] moment . . . had never come to an end, as if the canary-yellow lady had only just fallen over or swooned . . . as if the little accident . . . were always happening over and over again, and nothing and no one could ever remedy it” (13–14). With anguished accuracy, he speaks “at length about the marks of pain which, as he said he well knew, trace countless fine lines through history” (14).
Daniel Deronda and Austerlitz become reference points for a history, both personal and transpersonal, of identity lost and, in a sense, found. In Deronda’s case, the kernel of Jewish identity is revealed, after yearning, intimations, and encounters that engender a coherent sense of historical purpose. The unplayed instrument is well and truly played. For Austerlitz, identity and purpose are known only as forever lost, poignant eruptions from unseen worlds. The self is dispersed, helpless, abandoned. At the heart of this melancholy world, Sebald writes elsewhere, is the “realization of the impossibility of salvation.”26W. G. Sebald, Campo Santo, trans. Anthea Bell (New York: The Modern Library), 118.
MOSES AS EPIC PRECURSOR
For Moses, the question of the possibility of salvation is precisely what places him in a field in which Deronda and Austerlitz represent counterforces. Between the Deronda image of the redeemer, who will lead his people from exile to the Promised Land, and the inconsolable sorrow of history embodied in the figure of Austerlitz, the Moses figure is identified in kabbalistic literature as the soul-root of Israel. His history is the history of his people. All will receive the Torah through him; when he moves his lips to convey the sacred text, their lips move as well. In the Talmud, a brilliant reading of the text is celebrated with the words, “Moses, you have spoken well!”27B. Shabbat 101b. In a sense, his life is both singular and metaphoric of the life of Israel. It will be consummated in the ultimate redemptive figure of the Messiah.
But his history, like theirs, only gradually emerges from exile and rupture. Latency and impediment mark his history. His birth into language plays out larger processes, divine processes of coming-to-be in the world. His identity, like Jewish identity and divine identity (“What is His Name?”) will find oblique expression in the volatile world of becoming (Ehyeh asher ehyeh—“I shall become what I shall become”). Lostness will find itself in a language shaped by desire and fantasy. Woven throughout the tapestry of his life is the question of the possibility of redemption. In this sense, both Austerlitz and Deronda haunt our reading of Moses. They sharpen and deflect our perception of their epic precursor.28See Jorge Luis Borges, “Kafka’s Precursors,” in Labyrinths (New York: New Directions, 1962), 201.
ENGAGING A DEPTH WORLD
Is salvation then possible? In other words, do God’s words, His promises, hold good? At the moment of greatest pressure, when His promises have, apparently, failed the test of history, Moses cries out: “O God! Why have You done evil to this people? Why then did you send me? Since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has made things worse for Your people: You have not saved Your people!” (Ex. 5:22–23). Moses here brushes against the unspeakable. God’s words have not merely been ineffective in bringing about salvation; they have proved meaningless in the ruthless press of reality, which is Pharaoh’s realm. The meitzarim, the straits of senseless suffering, close in on the hopes of flesh and blood. This is the true “evil” of which Moses speaks: God’s words ring hollow in human perception.
In this crisis, God responds: “Now you shall see what I will do.” As if to intimate that the story proper begins only now, God speaks of this breaking point as a turning point. In the writings of R. Yaakov Leiner, the scion of the Ishbitz line of Hassidic masters, this critical moment becomes a paradigm of the salvation process. Moses’ cry of outrage is to be the trigger of a redemption delayed till now. God’s promises have awakened hope in the people, but till now they have remained unconsummated. A paradoxical process is necessary. God’s words must go through a process of exile, of breaking apart, as in the original process of world creation, when an absolute Presence shattered into brilliant fragments.
The historical moment of deepest disappointment, like that original Breaking of the Vessels, reenacts the Exile of the Word in its metaphysical mode. What follows is a Redemption of the Word—“fulfilling His utterances, so that they should not be lost; then salvation will be fully consummated.”29Beit Yaakov, Shemot, 74.
What is gained through the process of loss and retrieval is the involvement of human work in the historical enactment of salvation. Even the human cry of outrage is human work. Such cries of pain are heard as forms of prayer, giving the sufferer an active role in the resolution of his suffering.
R. Leiner cites Proverbs: “Plans are foiled for want of counsel (b’ein sod), but they succeed through many advisors” (15:22). He translates: “When good thoughts occur and are immediately lost, this is because ein sod, because they do not emerge from the hidden depths of the heart.” R. Leiner seizes on a singularly modern moment of awareness, the moment of “forgetting,” of the loss of consciousness. In order to absorb the message of redemption, deep work is necessary, “from the depths of the heart.” Without this, words, even divine words, are constantly in danger of being lost, of dissolving into exile.
To bring them to consummation, a surface coherence must be lost. A depth world, a fantasy world, is to be engaged: perhaps the paralyzing fantasy of the master-slave relation, of the irresistible gezera, the edict of the Mitzrayim realm, whose law is constriction. The power of these conditions lies in the fact that they are not only external, imposed by others: they live in the internal world of the victim, answering to unconscious fears and desires.
In this reading, things get worse before they get better. This is the pattern: suffering, hope, and worse suffering. Here, Pharaoh responds to God’s demand, “Let My people go!” by tightening the vise still further (Ex. 5:1–10). In fact, the pattern is set from the beginning. Pharaoh’s decree that midwives dispose of male Hebrew infants is foiled, only to be followed by a harsher, more official decree: All Egyptians are to be involved in the drowning of all Israelite male infants (1:22).
In this crisis, the Israelites face down their own terror and continue to bear children. The individual narrative of Moses’ birth serves partially as a metaphor for the Israelite opening to life in a time of genocide. Here again, his story is both singular and representative. In midrashic diffractions of the episode, Moses’ father at first separates from his wife in the terror of the times. His daughter Miriam compels him to see that he is in effect submitting to Pharaoh’s decree. (“Your decree is worse than Pharaoh’s,” she says; “He decrees against male children, you against all children!” He is doing Pharaoh’s work of constriction for him, only more effectively!) As a result, he returns to his wife and rescinds his own decree that all Israelite couples separate.30B. Sotah 12a. Babies are born: among them Moses—primus inter pares.
SPEAKING AND STAMMERING: PAUL CELAN
Only in this way will God’s words hold good. The rupture, the experience of loss, of forgetting one’s own thoughts, must be plumbed in order to reach to the depths of fantasy, of fear and desire, where thoughts come together or break apart. The breaking point, the site of trauma, is the site of human words, where losses may be, as Paul Celan puts it, unlost. This involves keeping terror and courage, the “No and Yes,” the fullness of the void, un-split.31See Anne Carson, Economy of the Unlost (Princeton: Prince ton University Press, 1999), 109. The quotation is from Celan’s “Sprich auch du,” translated by John Felstiner in his Paul Celan, Poet, Survivor, Jew (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 79.
Paul Celan is yet another modern victim of the Exile of the Word, estranged from what had been most familiar. He insists on writing in German, his mother language, which is also the language of those who murdered his mother, a language forever haunted by its demonic uses during the Holocaust. “As for me I am on the outside,” he once said.32Felstiner, Paul Celan, 94. Ann Carson elaborates, “In order to write poetry at all, he had to develop an outside relationship with a language he had once been inside.”33Carson, Economy of the Unlost, 29.
This passage from his speech at Bremen has often been quoted:
Reachable, near and unlost amid the losses, this one thing remained: language. This thing, language, remained unlost, yes, in spite of everything. But it had to go through its own loss of answers, had to go through terrifying muteness, had to go through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing talk.34Ibid.
“Unlost amid the losses,” sole survivor is language, even compromised language. It has to be “gone through” in its “answerlessness” (lit., “loss of answers”). In order to be unlost, its lostness has to be seen through, not resisted, not short-circuited, in all its terror. The “thousand darknesses of deathbringing talk” is a reference to the Nazi use of language as a means of genocide: “slogans, pseudo-scientific dogma, propaganda, euphemism.”35Felstiner, Paul Celan, xvii. Ann Carson suggests that for Celan language-death may have meant a more universal problem affecting the whole sphere of human communication: “the tendency of meanings to ‘burn out’ of language and to be covered over by a ‘load of false and disfigured sincerity.’”36Carson, Economy of the Unlost, 30.
This tendency of language as such is perhaps implicit in the midrashic readings of the Egyptian genocide. In one famous instance, when Pharaoh imposes slave labor b’ferech, “with harshness,” the Sages read b’feh rach, “with soft language.” Slogans, propaganda, euphemism—the political means of genocide. Or perhaps even a style of speaking that evokes a general ailment of communication—the tendency of meaning to burn out of language. Pharaoh becomes the paradigm of this tendency, as, for Celan, the thousand-year Reich brought the death of language to its nullest place.
What is left for Celan but to “go through” this death, this answerlessness, this thorn bush, from which speech must emerge? For Moses, archetype of those for whom language no longer holds good, a similar passage lies ahead. If his people cannot hear him because of kotzer ruach—the pressure of impatience, exasperation, the desire to thwart the unbearable work of time, then Moses, crying out on their behalf, is already engaged in the work of “speaking and stammering.”
Came, if there
came a man,
came a man to the world, today, with
light-beard: he could,
if he spoke of this
only babble and babble,
(“Pallaksch, Pallaksch”)37Felstiner, Paul Celan, 172. “Pallaksch. Pallaksch.” is Hölderlin’s expression for “sometimes yes, sometimes no.”
Something is being created through these stammering words, an area within which words may yet hold good. These are almost a private language—the babblings and repetitions that are all the prophet can utter. The German text ends in zuzu (“againagain”), which, Felstiner suggests, evokes the stammering prophet Moses: “I am heavy of mouth and tongue.”
EXCESS AND INHIBITION
The tendency of meaning to burn out of language is a constant theme in Nietzsche’s writings. Here lies the paradox of the stammer:
May your virtue be too exalted for the familiarity of names: and if you must speak of her, then do not be ashamed to stammer of her. Then speak and stammer, “This is my good; this I love; it pleases me wholly; thus alone do I want the good. I do not want it as divine law; I do not want it as human statute and need: it shall not be a signpost for me to overearths and paradises. It is an earthly virtue that I love: there is little prudence in it, and least of all the reason of all men. But this bird built its nest with me: therefore I love and caress it; now it dwells with me, sitting on its golden eggs.” Thus you shall stammer and praise your virtue.38Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking Press, 1954), 36.
To speak publicly of one’s “virtue” is to vulgarize its precious idiosyncrasy. Nietzsche’s solution is: “Speak and stammer.” In a valuable essay, “Moses the Modest Law-Giver,” Julie E. Cooper extends this notion to the issue of Moses’ stammer.39Julie Cooper, “Moses the Modest Law-Giver” (unpublished article). Personal and inexpressible, his Revelation must not be travestied by easy utterance. The stammer, here, is part of the message; the hesitation, the halting delivery, the “fundamental inhibition of expression,” convey the excess of revelation.40Martin Buber, Moses (New York: Humanity Books, 1998), 59. Cited in Cooper, 18. They may also convey the ambivalence of the prophet before the overwhelming influx of revelation. Fear and desire may create a dumbfounding conflict.41See Herbert Marks, “On Prophetic Stammering,” in The Book and the Text, ed. Regina Schwartz (Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1990).
The role of prophet or poet holds at its heart the paradox of speaking the unspeakable. While language is necessary for life within a stable social order, there is always “a loss involved as the multiple possible ways of experiencing the world are narrowed and channeled into what can be said.”42Stephen Frosh, For and Against Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1997), 183.
A certain kind of reticence, or circumspection, therefore halts the true prophet, faced with the inscrutable God, whose revelation must be narrowed into what can be said. In a moment of pure desire, Moses asks God, “Let me see please Your Glory” (33:18). God denies his request and grants him only a vision of His “back”:
“You cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live.” And God said, “See, there is a place near Me. Stand on the rock and, as My Glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock, and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove My hand and you will see My back; but My face may not be seen” (33:20–23).
God’s face cannot be seen by human eyes, but His “back,” the traces of God’s presence in the world, can be glimpsed after He has passed by. One of the Hassidic masters of the nineteenth century, R. Mordecai Yosef Leiner, known as Mei HaShiloach, reads the reference to God’s “back” as a temporal reference to the past—to that which has passed and gone. Moses is given insight into past history, into processes already under way. But to see His face, or Presence, would mean to read God’s meanings in the present moment: this is beyond human understanding.43Mei HaShiloach Tissa 1.
But this, precisely, is what Moses desires: to fathom God’s ways in real time. So the Talmud describes his desire at this moment: “Moses said in God’s presence, ‘Master of the Universe, why do the righteous suffer, and the wicked prosper?’” This is the radical question, the core problem of souls. In a moment of divine favor, this is Moses’ request, Let me see Your face! But God answers inscrutably: “The righteous who suffer are not perfectly righteous; and the wicked who prosper are not perfectly wicked!”44B. Brachot 7a. In spite of the unique intimacy between Moses and God (“He spoke with Him face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” [33:11]), a full revelation of divine meanings is withheld from him.
God is inscrutable on this most painful of human questions. Moses, in particular, is haunted by the unintelligible world into which he has been—twice—born. His life is, in some obscure way, a metaphor for that of the people to whom he is strangely attached. Why is he chosen? Why are they chosen, for genocide and for redemption?
Emmanuel Levinas, the French Jewish philosopher, remarks on the choice of Moses:
The language of the Old Testament is so suspicious of any rhetoric which never stammers that it has as its chief prophet a man “slow of speech and of tongue.” In this disability we can see more than the simple admission of a limitation; it also acknowledges the nature of this kerygma, one which does not forget the weight of the world, the inertia of men, the dullness of their understanding.45Emmanuel Levinas, “Revelation in the Jewish Tradition,” The Levinas Reader, ed. Sean Hand (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1989), 197.
Moses is chosen because of his disability, which conveys not only his own limitations but also the human resistance to revelation. This resistance implies that the messenger will himself be afflicted by a sense of the clogged medium in which he has to speak. The language of the prophet will reflect this stalled experience; he will express himself through indirection.
Moreover, as Cooper argues, a kind of tragic realism requires the prophet to keep in mind the unredeemed nature of the world. An inherent silence will haunt the precipitations of speech. The most enlightened of human beings is nevertheless illumined only intermittently. This is Maimonides’ image for the philosopher’s experience of Revelation: like lightning flashes, truth appears and disappears.46Maimonides Moses, The Guide of the Perplexed. Trans. Shlomo Pines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 7. A literary modesty must therefore mark his utterances.
Even Moses, for whom these flashes appear continuously, hides his face when God first speaks to him. Even he has imperfect access to God. Maimonides refers to the light that later irradiates Moses’ face. It too is a subtly broken light: pulses, rays, rather than a direct energy. Both his reception and his transmission of the law have this intermittent though dense quality.47Maimonides (1963), 123. The truths that God would reveal are always indirect, with gaps and silences built in.
Silence, indeed, is an essential part of Moses’ “modest” prophetic experience. A classic midrash interweaves language and silence, present and future time. Here, Moses envisions R. Akiva, who will expound the law with elaborate eloquence:
Moses went and sat down behind eight rows [and listened to the future discussion of the law by R. Akiva]. Not being able to follow their arguments, he was ill at ease, but when they came to a certain subject and the disciples said to the master, “How do you know it?” and he replied, “It is a law given to Moses at Sinai,” he was comforted. Then he turned round to God and said, “Master of the universe, You have such a man and you give the Torah through me!” God replied, “Be silent! Such is My decree!”
Then Moses said, “Master of the universe, You have shown me his Torah, show me his reward!” “Turn around!” said God; Moses turned around and saw them weighing out his flesh at the market-stalls. “Master of the universe,” Moses cried, “such Torah, and such a reward!” God replied, “Be silent! Such is My decree!”48B. Menachot 29b.
Throughout this midrash, Moses is bewildered: by the sophisticated discourses on the Torah that he witnesses in R. Akiva’s academy; by R. Akiva’s attributing them to him; by God’s choice of him over R. Akiva; by R. Akiva’s atrocious fate. Repeatedly, he turns to God with the words, “Master of the universe,” asking for visions and explanations. And twice—on the two conundrums of God’s choice of him and R. Akiva’s gruesome “reward”—God answers him, “Be silent! Thus is My decree!”
On the two main mysteries that concern Moses—his own vocation and inexplicable human suffering—God is inscrutable. The mysteries remain opaque. Moses’ bewilderment is, in a sense, divinely sanctioned. On such questions, words cannot hold good.
God’s silence, then, makes possible both R. Akiva’s flood of legal interpretations and his martyrdom. If God is inscrutable, too, both R. Akiva and Moses are given license: to speak and to be silent. Moses’ role, though, is, as Cooper says, “ultimately more commensurate with the tragic dimension of life” under divine law. In his mouth, there is heaviness, opacity, bewilderment, hesitation, the quest for intimations.
Silence is justified, even required, where human life is more and other than we understand it to be. Nevertheless, God exerts pressure on Moses, in his prophetic role, to speak. When Moses resists, God is angry (Ex. 4:14). What would it mean for Moses, stammering, to speak?
Here is a midrashic narrative about the tension between Moses and God:
“These are the records of the Tabernacle”: You find that when Israel were in harsh labor in Egypt, Pharaoh decreed (gazar) against them that they should not sleep at home nor have relations with their wives. Said R. Shimeon bar Chalafta, What did the daughters of Israel do? They would go down to draw water from the river, and God would prepare for them little fish in their buckets, and they would sell some of them, and cook some of them, and buy wine with the proceeds, and go to the field and feed their husbands, as it is said, “In all the labor of the field” (1:14).
And when they had eaten and drunk, the women would take the mirrors and look into them with their husbands, and she would say, “I am more comely than you”; and he would say, “I am more comely than you.” As a result, they would accustom themselves to desire, and they became fruitful and multiplied, and God bestowed pregnancy on them [lit., He took note of them] immediately.
Some of our Sages said, “They bore two children at a time; others said, They bore six at a time; yet others said, They bore twelve at a time; and still others said, They bore six hundred thousand. . . . And all these numbers from the mirrors . . . In the merit of those mirrors which they showed their husbands to accustom them to desire, from the midst of the harsh labor, they raised up all the hosts, as it is said, “All the hosts of God went out of the land of Egypt” (12:41), and it is said, “God brought the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt in their hosts” (12:51).
When God told Moses to make the Tabernacle, the whole people stood up and offered whatever they had— silver, gold, copper, etc.; everyone eagerly offered their treasures. The women said, “What have we to offer as a gift for the Tabernacle?” So they brought the mirrors to Moses. When Moses saw those mirrors, he was furious with them. He said to the Israelites, “Take sticks and break their thighs! What do they need mirrors for?” Then God said to Moses, “Moses, these you despise! These mirrors raised up all those hosts in Egypt! Take them, and make of them a copper ewer with a copper stand for the priests to sanctify themselves—as it is said, “And he made the ewer of copper and its stand of copper, of the mirrors of those who created hosts . . .” (38:8).49Tanchuma Pikudei 9.
The mirror play of women in the Egyptian fields generates tension between God and Moses. Moses despises these mirrors, devices in the service of sexuality, vanity, narcissism. He violently ejects them from the sacred space of the Tabernacle. God reproaches Moses, “These mirrors raised up all the hosts of Israel!” He attributes the exploding birthrate among Israelite families (six at a time? twelve? six hundred thousand?) to the mirror play of women. At a time when Pharaoh’s decree threatens the survival of the people, women stage this strange “boasting” scene: “I am more comely than you!” they claim to their mirrored partners, who are probably far from comely in their enslaved state. They provoke their husbands to vaunt their own beauty. And out of this strange game, a lost culture of desire and birth is retrieved.
More fantasy than reality, beauty is conjured by words spoken in a mirror. Mirrors reveal inaccessible visions: one’s own face, for instance, or the back or the side of one’s head; telescopic, microscopic, periscopic perspectives; laser reflections. Words spoken in the mirror have the power to redeem the mortal misery of slave bodies. In defiance of Pharaoh’s decree—“Thus it shall be and not otherwise!”—babies are conceived, as are anticipations, hopes for a larger life.
The dark side of the mirror, however, is that the mirror- reflection is illusory. It is all done with mirrors . . . For better and for worse, it is fantasy that engenders this redemption. In the work of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, the child’s first glimpse of himself in a mirror, erect and coherent, provides an external prop for a fragmented identity. The infant previously knew himself as “un corps morcelé,” a body in bits and pieces; now an illusory mirror image, a fiction of wholeness, will seduce him with an “ideal-I.” The fragile ego continues to seek out such bits and pieces, fictions that offer the self a stable identity, from the outside in:
The ego is the sum of the identifications of the subject, with all that implies as to its radical contingency. If you allow me to give an image of it, the ego is like the superimposition of various coats borrowed from what I will call the bric-a-brac of its props department.”50Cited in Stephen Frosh, For and Against Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 2006), 181.
This is an ongoing quest for identity. As Stephen Frosh puts it, “The ego thus comes to be a home for lost desires and forsaken objects.”
For Lacan, this process is delusional. The self knows that it is not really whole. Things fall apart; anxiety haunts the constant anticipation of self-mastery. There is a “constant danger of sliding back again into the chaos from which he started.”51Cited in Jane Gallop, Reading Lacan (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 84. The tragic dimension of the process is inherent and inescapable.
In our midrash, however, although it is clear that the woman is seducing her husband with provocative words about a fantasy beauty, God defends the mirror game, fiction and all. For it produces movement; there is a lightness to the intimate game; it swings a rigid reality of fragmentation (Pharaoh’s decree, separating men and women) into a new “habit,” a new culture, of desire.52In Rashi’s version of this midrash (to 38:8), the woman is me-shadel her husband: “open,” “swing,” hence “seduce.” In a world of gezera, in which things are forever as they must be, these women have modeled redemption. Those mirrors, fictional representations, not simply of an illusory self, but also of anticipated relationship, create openings to alternative worlds.
MOSES AGAINST MIRRORS
Moses’ violent response to the donation of these mirrors to the Tabernacle is not hard to understand. This erotic culture is false; its language is seductive and builds on fantasy. Moreover, the issue of truth and falsehood has a personal significance to Moses. If, as we have suggested, his own sense of identity remains a fraught question throughout the early part of his life, the play with illusion and the blurring of boundaries—mirrors in the Tabernacle—would personally offend him. An ascetic aspiration for a world of truth would leave Eros a highly circumscribed role in human life.
“Who am I?” (Ex. 3:12) he demanded at the Burning Bush, resisting the redemptive role that God would impose on him. And again, “If they ask me, What is His name, what shall I tell them?” (3:13). Not a man of words, he nevertheless craves names, the language that pins down a spinning reality. God answers evasively: “I will be with you!” And gives him a sign to authenticate his mission: “I will be what I will be! I will be has sent me to you!” (3:14).
In this first encounter with God, Moses stages his own anxiety about names, about true words that will hold good. But God’s identity is elusive; it holds transformation at its heart—a matter of becoming rather than being.53See, e.g., Rashi and Ramban to 3:14: God’s identity will evolve in the context of evolving human realities. It has a “mirroring” function. And so, apparently, is Moses’ identity. Rather than pacifying Moses’ imagination, God provokes it: “I will be with your mouth!” (4:12). God remains inscrutable, and His answers do not allay Moses’ anxiety. Moses responds with silence.
So God then proceeds further to identify Himself: “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, God, the God of your fathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob, has sent me to you: that is My name for ever, and that is my appellation throughout the generations” (3:15). Finally, a name, an eternal name. But it was the Nameless God who spoke first, addressing the uncertainties of Moses’ deepest sense of himself. The eternal name is intended for the people; but the Nameless God had identified Himself to Moses alone. Ehyeh—I will be evokes a Becoming beyond words: perhaps, indeed, a kind of divine stammer, intimating an inviolable privacy.
Moses’ response passionately disputes God’s open future tense: “But they will not believe me, they will not listen to me!” (4:1) And further, “Please O God, I have never been a man of words, neither yesterday nor the day before, nor now that You have spoken to Your servant. For I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” (4:10). To which God replies by inflecting His nameless Ehyeh: “I am God [the Tetragrammaton, YHVH—“He who will be”] . . . I will be with your mouth” (4:11–12).
If God is a verb, rather than a noun, then His support of the women and their mirrors becomes intelligible. As the God of becoming, He sponsors the infinite play of possibility: the hosts of Israel waiting in the wings. And Moses positions himself, strangely, in the opposition, aligned—still more strangely —with Pharaoh and his decrees. In the flux of identities and identifications, Moses seeks stability, a clear social-symbolic order. The women playing with what-may-be, with the fictions of possibility, threaten a proper sense of order. But what God implies is that the ordered is often the defensive: it is Pharaoh’s constricted invention, a meitzar-device, narrowing what can be understood by human life.
In the midrash, these copper mirrors are to be taken in, incorporated into the Tabernacle, in the form of the copper stand and ewer used by the priests to sanctify themselves. At divine command, erotic and sacred realities are merged. Indeed, as Ramban points out, unlike other copper contributions to the Tabernacle, the women’s mirrors were not melted down to be re-formed into the sacred accoutrements. They retained their integrity as mirrors, with the disturbing associations that Moses finds so offensive.
Moses both desires and fears language: he longs for the power of names to stabilize and unify experience, while he fears its dynamic, endlessly protean character. Fictions give birth to further fictions, till the ground of truth has been lost. Or, paradoxically, we might say that the opposite is true: what he fears is the limiting, narrowing effect of language, while he longs for its capacity to break out of the armor of rigid meanings. This second ambivalence is represented by God in the midrash, urging Moses to broaden his vision of the mirror reality. He is to find a way out of exile, specifically, out of the Exile of the Word that is the most radical manifestation of all exiles.
STORIES OF UNCLAIMED EXPERIENCE
In an unredeemed world, how can redemption be achieved? We remember Austerlitz’s description of the sixteenth-century Belgian painting; the woman who has fallen on the ice comes to represent a fatality, the way “marks of pain trace countless fine lines through history. This is always happening over and over again. Nothing and no-one could remedy it” (14). In Austerlitz’s mind, the sheer repetition of historical anguish, like a stammer, speaks of an irremediable state.
And yet, the painter’s work, Austerlitz’s broken narrative, and Sebald’s complex framing of that narrative are mirrors-within-mirrors, performing a barely glimpsed possibility. A certain kind of language may open the long-closed mouth. Even if all that emerges is the long-drawn out A-A-A-A of a Novelli tortured to the point where words abandon him.
Novelli’s story emerges from Austerlitz’s storehouse of memories when he thinks of the tortures inflicted on prisoners in the Breedonk fortress; he remembers Claude Simon’s “storehouse of memories,” among them “the fragmentary tale of a certain Gastone Novelli,” who, after being tortured at Dachau, found the sight of a German, or of any civilized being, so intolerable that he went off to the South American jungle, where he completed a dictionary of the language of the tribe of pygmies among whom he lived. This language consisted almost entirely of vowels, particularly the sound A in countless variations. Later, Novelli returned to his native land and began to paint pictures, mostly featuring the letter A, formations “rising and falling in waves like a long-drawn-out scream.
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA”54Sebald, Austerlitz, 27.
Austerlitz connects his visit to the fortress with his later reading of the particular torture that Jean Améry suffered there. Another book comes to mind, a particular story. Silence haunts these unbearable memories, but fragments break through. Till Novelli gives his own fragmentary account, first in his scientific account of the pygmy language, and then in his paintings, which are pure representations of pain, an endless stammer.
Austerlitz, who himself stammers on occasion, and who at crucial moments cannot bring out the words he should have spoken, nevertheless, in a sense, redeems, by his linked associations, his unlived life.55Ibid., 136. At least, the narrator, or Sebald himself, in writing and framing the story, records both the impossibility and the possibility of redemption.
The Torah tells of a traumatized national silence that erupts into cries of pain—four different synonyms for the cry. Here language begins. What redemption lies here? Is the cry not simply the trace of pure pain, which “un-makes the world”?56See Scarry, The Body in Pain, 19–22. And yet, as we have noticed, R. Yaakov Leiner would have us hear this cry as the “beginning of redemption”: “Now, you will see what I will do,” God tells Moses. At the darkest hour, when language, even divine words of promise, fails altogether, at that breaking point, what is lost may become unlost. The sufferer may open herself to an intimation, something emerging from depths never before fathomed. This is the work of the mirrors, which performs redemption in a different language.
Another Hassidic reading speaks of a people who can barely experience their own history. When God arrives at His ultimate promise of redemption, which is to demonstrate that His words do indeed hold good, He uses four synonyms: “I will take you out, I will save you, I will redeem you, I will take you to Me as a people” (Ex. 6:6–7). This is known as “the four languages of redemption”: four repetitions that are not repetitions —divine stammers . . . But the Israelites, we are told, “did not hear” these words (6:9). Moses tries to convey this message of redemption, but the message falls on deaf ears.
Since the message took no root in their consciousness, writes Sefat Emet, we must keep telling the story.57Sefat Emet VaYikra, 72. More than that, since God knew what would happen, His message was intended to provoke precisely this sequence of repression, deafness, unawareness, followed by later retrievals. The effect of repression is the fertility of re-membering, of the effort to create coherent narratives in an experience of rupture.
The traumatic gap in communication is indicated, writes Sefat Emet, by the word chipazon, “panic haste.” This expresses the inherent nature of such traumatic departures: “You shall eat it [the Paschal lamb] in chipazon” (12:11), God instructs Moses just before the Exodus. And forty years later, in retrospect, Moses remembers, “You left Egypt in chipazon” (Deut. 16:3).
The unassimilated experience of the Exodus is made good by generations of storytelling. Each in its own language, the generations play out the multiple possibilities—the four languages—of redemption. In telling these stories of unclaimed experience, we fulfill a mitzvah, a positive commandment. From the unregistered power of the Exodus, Torah is made for all generations.
The implications of this passage are quite astonishing. Writing at the end of the nineteenth century, Sefat Emet departs from positivist readings of the Exodus: in place of the conventional narrative—“This is what God promised; the people heard and believed; God’s words are fulfilled in an immediate authentication of the divine role in history”—he offers a world in which forgetting, unawareness, and silence are the breeding ground of fertile re-memberings. The languages of the descendants constitute a Torah-revelation that redeems the repressed historical moment.
“STORED THERE IN YOUR EYES”
How does this affect Moses and the history of his mouth? His mission is, we might say, to speak words, to Pharaoh and to the Israelites, that will not immediately come true. In addition, if we follow the clue of Sefat Emet’s teachings, a built-in traumatic response will prevent the Israelites from fully registering both promise and redemption.
The main fact of their history becomes the repression of the event, as it happens in real time. Redemption and revelation happen both too late and too soon. On the night of the Exodus, they wait, girded and booted, for the moment of departure. Then it is upon them and they rush out of Egypt! There is something ungainly, both bashful and precipitate, about this redemption. A time lag is built in.
“The problem was that you didn’t always know what you were seeing until later, maybe years later, that a lot of it never made it in at all, it just stayed stored there in your eyes.”58Michael Herr, Dispatches, quoted in Caruth, Unclaimed Experience, 10. History is no longer straightforwardly referential. As Cathy Caruth argues, it is in the encounter with trauma that we can begin to recognize the possibility of a history of a different kind. This may open the possibility of “permitting history to arise where immediate understanding may not.”59Caruth, Unclaimed Experience, 11.
It is only in and through its inherent forgetting that the Exodus is first experienced at all. The story of Exodus, of a traumatic departure, will be revisited time and again in the Wilderness. Thus begins the ongoing history of torah she-ba’al peh, the Oral Torah—literally, “the Torah of the mouth.” The narrator comes, at certain moments, to “understand in chords,” sounding simultaneously meanings from multiple worlds.60I owe this image to Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2011), 14.
In this process of suffering, repression, and retrieval, Moses plays a key role. On the one hand, he is the singular repository of memory. In him is stored a fuller awareness of the meanings of his experience. He will remind the people, rebuke them, pray for them in their many departures from their own experience. In this way, he will represent the continuity of history.
But, on the other hand, as we have seen, he too suffers from the Exile of the Word, a speech-spasm like a foreign body in his mouth. His own personal history is fragmented, his identity complicated. Like our modern survivors of such alienations, Deronda and Austerlitz and Celan, he represents the very discontinuities that haunt his people. This too is his destiny; this too is a key to possible redemption.