Shemot and Psalm 137:  Cry Like a Baby

January 20, 2017 at 10:48 am | Posted in Psalms/Tehilim, Shemot | Leave a comment
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This week begins the reading of the book of Exodus/Shemot in the Jewish tradition. This year my posts on Exodus will relate each Torah portion to one of the psalms.

Too many foreigners live in the country, from the Pharaoh’s point of view in this week’s Torah portion. Unlike those who fear immigrants in our own time, the Pharaoh is not afraid that the Israelites will take jobs from native Egyptians. He is afraid that if another country makes war on Egypt, these foreigners will join Egypt’s enemies.

Pharaoh's decree, by Michiel van der Borch, 1332

Pharaoh’s decree, by Michiel van der Borch, 1332

Instead of integrating the Israelites into Egyptian society to win their loyalty, the Pharoah enslaves them, requiring that the men do forced labor. He also tries to reduce the population.

Then Pharaoh commanded his entire people, saying: “Every son that is born, you shall throw him into the Nile. But every daughter you shall keep alive”. (Exodus/Shemot 1:22)

And a man from the house of Levi went out and married a daughter of Levi. And the woman conceived and she bore a son, and she saw that he was good, and she hid him for three months. (Exodus 2:1-2)

Commentators have suggested many reasons why the baby (later named Moses) is “good”. But since his mother (later identified as Yokheved) is able to hide the baby for three months, the simple answer is that he is placid and quiet. As long as his mother is there whenever he wakes up, Moses does not cry.

Why could Yokheved no longer hide him after three months? The commentary offers different theories. I suspect that Moses happens to be three months old when Egyptian bullies start searching the houses of Israelites for baby boys to drown.

It occurs to Yokheved that the best hiding place for an Israelite baby boy is the Nile itself. She tars a floating box made of papyrus stems, and places Moses inside. Then she carries it to the pool where a woman of the royal family goes to bathe, and wedges it among the reeds so the current will not carry it away. The care with which Yokheved picks the spot shows that she hopes her baby will be discovered and adopted.

detail, Golden Haggadah, c.1420 Spain

detail, Golden Haggadah, c.1420 Spain

And the daughter of Pharaoh went down to bathe in the Nile, and her maidens were walking next to the Nile. And she saw the floating box among the reeds, and she sent her slave-girl to fetch it. (Exodus 2:5)

The princess sees the box; she does not hear any crying. Moses, rocking gently inside, is probably asleep.

And she opened it and she saw the child, and hey! It was a boy, bokheh! And she felt pity for him, and she said: “This is one of the children of the Ivrim”. (Exodus 2:6)

bokheh (בֺּכֶה) = weeping, crying, sobbing, wailing. (From the root bakhah, ּבָּכָה = wept.)

Ivrim (עִבְרִים) = Hebrews; immigrants. (From the root avar, עָבַר = passed over, crossed through, emigrated.) Egyptians in the book of Exodus sometimes call the Israelites the Ivrim.

The story continues like a fairy tale, as the Pharaoh’s daughter ends up paying Moses’s own mother to nurse him, then adopts him after he is weaned. But why does Moses begin to cry when the princess opens the lid of the box? Probably the sudden sunlight wakes him—and then, instead of seeing the familiar face of his mother, he sees a stranger.

All infants cry when they are suddenly deprived of their primary caregivers, just as adults cry when someone they are deeply attached to dies. The world is strange and frightening without that familiar presence.

People may also cry when they are forced to leave their homes and live in a strange place. Yet when the Israelites and their fellow travelers follow the adult Moses out of Egypt, they “leave with a high hand” (Exodus 14:8). They rejoice rather than weep because they are choosing to leave a life of slavery and seek a new land to make their home.

On the other hand, in Psalm 137 the Israelites weep when the Babylonian army deports them from Jerusalem many centuries later, circa 586 B.C.E. They have no choice; they are forced to leave their homeland and live as foreigners in a strange place.

           psalm-137-1By the rivers of Babylon

           There we sat down, bakhinu,

           when we remembered Tziyon. (Psalm 137:1)

bakhinu (בָּכִינוּ) = we wept, cried, sobbed, wailed. (From the same root, bakhah, as in Exodus 2:6.)

Tziyon (צִיוֹן) = Zion; a hill overlooking Jerusalem; Jerusalem itself as a religious center.

The deportees weep when they see the place where they must now live. It even looks different from their motherland.         

Prisoners playing lyres from Sennacherib's palace, Nineveh, circa 700 B.C.E.

Prisoners carrying lyres, palace of Sennacherib, Nineveh, c. 700 B.C.E.

           Upon the poplars in her [Babylon’s] midst,

            Our lyres will remain hung. (137:2)

            Because there our captors asked us for words of song,

            Our oppressors for rejoicing:

            “Sing to us some song of Tziyon!” (137:3)

The Babylonian officers ask the deportees to entertain them by singing one of their quaint, provincial songs from Tziyon. If the officers merely wanted a folk song, they might have asked for a song from Jerusalem or Judah. By using the word Tziyon, the Babylonians are referring to Jerusalem as a religious center. Thus they remind the Israelites how helpless they are, even in matters of religion, now that the Babylonian army has razed the temple and deported them.

            How can we sing a song of God

           On the soil of a foreign land? (137:4)

The Israelites, and the Jews descended from them, do eventually sing sacred songs in foreign lands—including the psalms once sung in the temple. But in Psalm 137, they recoil from the idea of singing a hymn to God in order to let the Babylonians mock and humiliate them.

            If I forget you, Jerusalem,

            May my right hand forget. (137:5)

            May my tongue cling to my palate,

            If I do not remember you,

            If I do not exalt you, Jerusalem,

           Above my highest joy. (137:6)

            Remember, God, the Edomites

           On the day of Jerusalem, who said:

            “Strip it! Strip it down to the foundations!” (137:7)

According to the book of Obadiah, probably also written in the 6th century B.C.E., the men of the nearby land of Edom joined the Babylonians in sacking the city of Jerusalem (Obadiah 1:11-13).

            Babylon the despoiler,

            Fortunate are those who will retaliate for your retaliation against us! (137:8)

            Fortunate are those who will seize and smash

           Your little children on the rock! (137:9)

I picture the Israelites reacting like children, full of desperation at the loss of their mother land and religion, suddenly under the thumb of cruel and all-powerful foreigners. Toddlers in that situation might well scream with outrage and hatred at the mean strangers who have kidnapped them. It takes time to cool down, grow up, and consider the ramifications of one’s initial reaction. For a whole society, it can take centuries.

When the infant Moses cries at the sight of a stranger, it is because the stranger is not his mother, and he fears he has lost his mother forever. When the Israelite deportees cry at the sight of the rivers of Babylon, it is because Babylon is not their home, and they fear they will lose everything that means home to them: their identity, their way of life, and their religion.

They promise themselves they will never forget Jerusalem. Perhaps they recall the stories about Moses as an adult, who breaks with his royal Egyptian family to rescue the Israelite slaves.  He never forgets his mother and his own people.

May every one of us remember those we have loved and lost. May we remember our true homes—whether they are the homes we were born into (like the Israelites in Psalm 137), or the homes we adopt (like the Israelites that Moses leads out of Egypt in the book of Exodus).

 

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