Norman Fischer Exodus as Liberation

I want to interpret the story of the [Passover] exodus in the light of our meditation practice—not only what we learn on our cushions, but what we have come to understand through our experience in life about the shape of the spiritual journey.

Passover comes in the Spring of the year, a season that in all cultures suggests new life, new beginnings. So it’s no surprise that Passover is a holiday of renewal, a celebration of life. But Passover is also a holiday of liberation, commemorating the unprecedented and dramatic redemption from slavery of the Israelite nation. The Torah depicts this liberation in one of the world’s greatest moments of imaginative history: we see this people, six hundred thousand strong, bearing all their possessions in bundles on their backs, standing on the banks of the Red Sea—before them the raging waters; behind, fierce onrushing Egyptian charioteers. At that final moment of no exit there’s a sudden breakthrough: the sea parts, the people push through. The waters close behind them, and their pursuers perish.

We all know this story. We’re used to regarding it as a tale of historical and political liberation, which it certainly is. But the genius of the Torah is that it operates constantly on several levels at once, and it is possible, even necessary, to read the Exodus story also as the record of a personal, spiritual event, a spiritual liberation, a breakthrough for the soul that happened once long ago, and happens again and again, in the life of each individual who suddenly recognizes that chilling existential moment of standing right here, between the relentless pursuer and the forbidding sea.

Breakthrough is exciting. That transcendent moment, the giddy feeling one has when things suddenly burst open, a path suddenly appearing that a moment before was not there and did not seem possible. After the breakthrough moment, when you calm down and slowly integrate the experience into a life that can actually be lived on a day to day basis, you eventually appreciate that what is finally more interesting than the moment of breakthrough (thrilling though the memory of it may be) is the path that led to the breakthrough—the days, weeks, months, years, even decades—that were preparatory to it. Though it may at first seem less clear, less spectacular, and less pleasant, in fact there is more to be learned from the struggle than from the victory (which, considering the ongoing biblical story, or one’s own spiritual journey, is usually rather temporary anyhow). In reading the biblical Exodus story, then, it may be more profitable to look at passages preceding the moment at the Red Sea, with an eye for those moments of preparation and formation, which turn out to be, in hindsight, the seeds of liberation.

A little bit of necessary background: Throughout the bible story up until this point, the issue of generation, fertility, legacy, has been paramount. It is as if the narrative is tracing the establishment of a human race that is as yet still a tender shoot, tentative, in search of its place, its role, and its nature. This theme of generation, fertility, and legacy was central in the book of Genesis. In this book we follow the fortunes of a small tribe that struggles to have children, pass on a heritage, find its roots. God makes a covenant with this small ragged clan, promising that in return for their faithfulness they will multiply like the stars in the sky, and become a great nation. But this seems unimaginable.

Several generations pass. Through a long series of betrayals, disasters, and miracles, Joseph, son of Israel (Jacob), has become an honored official of the Egyptian government. Reunited with his family after long absence, he invites them to come to Egypt to escape famine. Because they are Joseph’s kin they are given respect, good land, and an honorable position as shepherds. They live this way for several generations. Then a new pharaoh comes to power. He does not respect Joseph’s legacy. This pharaoh sees the Israelites multiplying greatly, swarming the land like insects. Alarmed by their prodigious fertility, he decides to control them by enslaving them to the backbreaking work of building great “store cities,” monuments to the power and might of Egypt. When this doesn’t work to diminish them he orders finally that all the Israelite newborn sons be sought out and destroyed.

It seems clear that this focus on generation, fertility, and legacy, stands for something more than simple physical success or national dominance. At the heart of the Israelite’s project of self-establishment is the covenant they have made with God. Because of this, they are constantly challenged, tested, called forth. They are involved always in a relationship with something beyond themselves and their simple self interest. They cannot merely grow and prosper. They must grow and prosper in a particular way, in relation to God’s will. Like the rest of us, they rise to the occasion sometimes; but also like the rest of us, they often stray, forget, backslide, returning again and again to their habit of lazy narrow-minded self centeredness. It seems that they need to grow up, to firm up in their commitment to holiness before they can really go forward.

In Hebrew the word for Egypt suggests “narrowness.” In their enslavement, the Israelites are forced into narrower and narrower corners, more and more restriction and constriction. The logic of their self centered blindness becomes increasingly compelling as their suffering grows. What will bring them forth from this relentless narrowness out into the open?

At the beginning of the book of Exodus the people are described almost as if they were animals. Though they suffer greatly they have no understanding of their suffering. It has no meaning. They bear it, are ground down by it, but it’s as if they are incapable of really feeling it. They seem without consciousness, without passion. Moses functions as the eyes and hearts of the people. He is the first to feel the weight of their suffering. He feels it with such passion that he lashes out in anger, killing an Egyptian overseer. He is an Israelite, and yet he is removed from the situation of the Israelites, not really a part of them, and so he feels their suffering as an outsider. He is choked and squeezed by the suffering. It is unbearable. He bursts out of it with violence. No liberator, and without a depth of compassionate understanding, his sympathy is destructive, poisonous. After the murder, scorned by his own people, he flees, going out into the wilderness for, as it turns out, purification and preparation.

“It was many years later; the king of Egypt died. The children of Israel groaned from the servitude, and they cried out; and their plea for help went up to God, from the servitude. God harkened to their moaning, called to mind his covenant with Avraham, with Yitzhak, and with Yaakov, God saw the children of Israel, God knew” (Exodus 23-25, Everett Fox, translator, Schocken Books, N.Y. 1995).

This passage, coming immediately after the story of Moses’ flight, marks the beginning of the path toward liberation for the children of Israel. In this passage the people transform from patient slaves into people on a spiritual and political quest. Let’s examine how this happens.

The first thing to note is that the people’s awakening comes finally not as a consequence of any event marking their own suffering, but rather on the death of the king of Egypt. This is strange. It’s as if the people take their own condition for granted, are buried in it and are therefore oblivious to it, and only come to truly feel it when they notice the death of the king of Egypt. He, a powerful man, he of the monuments, of immense power, a god in his own right: now dead. I imagine that in ancient Egypt the death of a monarch was an immense psychic event, occasioning parades, ceremonies, pageants, more monumental building, sacrifices, a complete turning upside down of all daily life that would surely have affected even the lowly slaves.

For hundreds of years these slaves suffered without aspiration, without even any understanding of their plight—until the all-powerful pharaoh perished. Shock mixed together in them with amazement at the vulnerability of even this great patriarch, and with sorrow and fear that the beginning of a new era might bring on them even worse travail, and, perhaps, even with compassion (slaves often love their oppressors, even as they hate them).

Rocked by a cataclysmic event coming from outside themselves, the slaves were startled into looking at themselves for the first time. They saw their immense suffering, and they saw it more clearly than Moses had, for they, unlike him, were inside the suffering, and they, unlike him, were now seeing it in the light of the vanity of violence, oppression, and worldly power. Their recognition of suffering was now deep and true. It was no longer just a matter of their own discomfort, their own tragedy, but of the tragedy that we all suffer, the tragedy of all our living and dying.

I have always seen this same sense of a deep recognition of suffering in the story of the Buddha’s life. It is the suffering of sickness, old age, and death seen in others and at the same time in himself that first inspired the Buddha as well on his path toward liberation.

So this is the first awakening, the first step on liberation’s path— a deep appreciation of one’s suffering, but not out of anger or resentment, not out of a sense of chagrin over one’s personal situation; rather an appreciation of one’s suffering as nuanced and shared; a seeing and feeling that suffering is unavoidable, deeply connected, deeply ingrained in the nature of what is.

And what’s next? Next—as the text shows—there’s a groaning, and a crying out, and a plea for help. Once this immense insight into the nature of suffering arises, one can no longer be passive. But what can a slave do? A slave can groan, cry, plead. Here for the first time there is expression, there is speaking out into the void the pain and the anguish. And with that speaking something occurs: the listening ear of the world is activated. Something stirs. The world begins finally to turn. Although nothing whatsoever has happened in the outer world, the inevitably of liberation is set forth at this moment, when the Israelites finally touch their suffering, their actual human suffering, when they find their heart and they find their tongue.

Hearing them speaking out their pain into the world, God responds. “God heard, God remembered, God saw, God knew.” In a sense, it is not God who initiates the action of the story, not God who controls things. It is the people, coming into contact with the depth of their travail and speaking it out, who activate God, causing God to stir; their voice fans the small flame of spiritual aspiration (that is both their own, and God’s: at this point it is hard to tell the difference) that will inevitably lead to that immense moment on the shores of the Red Sea.
This then is the process of the spiritual path. A true awakening to the human condition of suffering—connected emotionally to personal suffering but beyond personal complaint or whining—calls forth a speaking out, a reaching out, and that speaking and reaching always finds a response in the world and in what the bible understands as God. This is how the path to liberation always begins.

In the very next verses in Exodus God appears to Moses in the flame of the unconsumed burning bush. In this meeting between God and Moses the forces of liberation are assembled.

Now let’s flash forward to the last night of enslavement: “It was the middle of the night: YHWH struck down every firstborn in the land of Egypt … and there was a great cry in Egypt; for there is not a house in which there is not a dead man” (verses 29, 30). This is what Fox translates.

The grief takes place, as all grief does, in the middle of the night. After a lifetime of arrogance, dominance, and monument-building, pharaoh is finally brought low by insurmountable grief. He is brought low by the facts of life, by human powerlessness in the face of time and change. In his anguish he summons Moses and Aaron and tells them to go with all the people, immediately. “Go serve your God,” he tells them. “And bring a blessing even on me!” (verse 32). The children of Israel make hurried preparations, so quickly that there’s not even enough time to completely bake the bread. This last night before liberation is “a night of keeping watch for YHWH, … a keeping watch of all the children of Israel, throughout their generations” (verse 42).

This is an immense moment, a moment of sorrow, peace, and anticipation. The antagonists are, for this one night, united in their grieving. They stand as one, side by side, struck dumb with awe in the face of God’s power. which is the power of life and death, to which we are all subject. Even the pharaoh asks for God’s blessing: the oppressor too is human, and himself requires salvation in the middle of the night, just like the rest of us.

This phrase, “a night of keeping watch,” moves me, because it’s like our meditation practice. This is a description of what we’re doing in meditation. We’re keeping a night watch. We’re sitting on our cushions, waiting and watching for absolute being, sitting in the present moment of breath and body and mind, not trying to do anything. Once our mind comes to some quiet, we let go of all the useful techniques that we have learned. In the end, there’s no technique. We just sit there, not even any longer being anyone in particular with needs and desires, or even with spiritual aspirations, but willing to simply be there, with life as it is, alert, alive: waiting and watching for YHWH, the beyond. We’re waiting for nothing at all—nothing’s utter presence, nothing’s immense scope.

At the outset of this essay I said that there are many levels of reading Torah. There may be an infinite number of levels, but traditionally it’s said there are four, called, in Hebrew, Pashat, Remez, Drosh, and Sod. Pashat is “plain meaning,” simply what the text is saying plainly on the surface, the narrative, the plot, the facts; Remez is a mystical level, bringing our heart of practice to bear on the text, finding in it the meaning that uniquely flows from our own experience and life journey, often deviating from the plain meaning, sometimes even opposed to it; Drosh is a reading that includes various textual operations that might enhance and alter the plain meaning: word play, etymology, references or allusions to other parts of the text, rabbinic legends, apocryphal material; Sod is another mystical level of reading Torah, but this one is a more traditional mysticism, perhaps coming from Kaballah or other secret traditions that have derived new strategies of meaning hidden to all but the initiated.

The four letters standing for these four levels are P, R, D, S, which in Hebrew spells Pardes, Paradise. The Torah, finally, is said to be beyond the Torah, a text beyond the text—the letters fly off the page and into space. In the end, the whole world, inside and out, is Torah, is the text, is, when all the levels of meaning are finally brought together, Paradise.

We’re all pretty good at reading the Peshat of our lives, but that’s too simple. There’s more going on in what happens to us than we think. The usual name for the human race is homo sapiens, which is doubtful terminology—”wise persons!” Another name for the human race is homo religiosa, and that might be a better name—”people who practice religion.” Because we’re born and because we die and because we know how to speak and understand speech, we have spiritual lives and spiritual needs. Through all history, recorded and unrecorded, every people has always practiced some form of religion, and there are thousands and thousands of expressions of human religious life, though usually we cite just a few that have become dominant. In modern times we have a new religion called “no religion”: secular life, which sometimes works out and sometimes doesn’t work out to satisfy our spiritual needs.

But simply to sit down in the midst of the present, in the immense absolute moment of being alive, to face being, to be being—this is the bottom line of all religion, the ground of religious practice. Being is mysterious, awesome, impossible.

It’s not so easy to admit who we are, but when we do, when we’re willing to try, we’re standing on the basic ground of all religious understanding, and this is not Buddhist and it’s not Jewish and it’s not Christian and it’s not Muslim. It just is. What’s great about being’s mysterious immensity is that since there are no explanations for it and no words to describe it, we can’t fight about it. We can only fight about the provisional and necessarily imprecise vocabularies and concepts we fumblingly use to indicate it.

For this reason, true contemplative practice, which is grounded in actual religious experience, beyond concepts, is always radically tolerant, radically open; that’s why I think it’s the best way to find our commonality as human beings. When we sit together in silence we are peace. And then, of course, we have to get up. We can’t be silent all the time; we have to open our mouths. And when we do—we’re going to disagree—which is okay. Disagreeing is important, too. It makes things happen in the world. Through our practice we—can learn to appreciate one another in our disagreements, and appreciate the larger space that holds us all.


The trees bear fruit, the book


Like water brimming in the pitcher’s

Poured out steady till no drop remains

By a firm hand, a strong arm

The book bears them on through the storm

Tree tops twisting, stripped debris shattered

In the violent nights

Though the fruit’s sweet lingers on the tongue

Like melody:

That’s the plain meaning

Beyond that and embedded in it

Like seeds in a winter earth

(Officially only a thick layer

Atop a hard dark mystery below

Exactly as deep as the plow turns)

The fingers of connection reach forth

Like hairy roots laterally

Entangling other letters, heterodox meanings, bits and strands

(The third level now)

Of lives, songs, opinions, certainties

Wild stories, rewordings, revisions

Attempts to harmonize or humanize

Upheaval, sickness, fierce mistaken force

The worm in the infinite, how sky

Reflects the turmoil of the sea

The soul’s own sequential poisoning

In its reversing desire to crawl out

Of its own skin, like the famous snake

That spoke for it in the orchard

That had no hands to reach out, to hold

Then the inner turning

The quiet of snow falling on grass and leaf

With a hush beyond speculation and thought

A meaning pressed only into breathing

Or illuminated by the speechless waters

That suck underground

Into the capillary spaces that open beneath the feet

In the winding uncharted journey of footsteps

From one point of darkness to the next

© 2006, Norman Fischer

Originally published in Turning Wheel, journal of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship


One Response to “Exodus as Liberation”

  1. Kodi Vonderau Says:

    As I am reading through the book of Exodus, the text mentions a “watch-night” – which caught my attention and led me to your article via a search engine. I have spent hours tonight in prayer & meditation. I’ve just been in awe of finding myself (along with my generation) in this ancient story. So I just feel led to share my appreciation to the author for his words.

    Much thanks & blessings on you!