Shortly before Passover, my 4-year-old son sat on my lap as the matzah balls boiled, asking to read through the kids’ Haggadah in preparation to recite (or more likely mumble) the Four Questions. The supernatural events that enthralled him (the parting of the Red Sea, the profusion of frogs on Pharaoh’s nose and toes) quickly receded for me as I considered the more prosaic miracle of a generation of uninterrupted Passovers, and an exquisite moment of parent-child bonding.
In preparation for my own role leading the seder this year, I picked up Melvin Konner’s fascinating and quirky recent book "Unsettled: An Anthropology of the Jews" (Viking Compass). A quote by historian Robert Coote caught my attention: "There was nothing mysterious about the origins of Israel and nothing miraculous about it, other than the mystery of vitality and enterprise in the face of oppression and the miracle of resistance and tyranny."
This "miracle of resistance" is one reason for the cohesion of the Jewish people, but it doesn’t go far enough in explaining how a 3,000-year-old story made its way from the Sinai desert to my parents’ house in California. To Coote’s celebration of moral steadfastness I would add the following trifecta of winning Jewish characteristics: an ancient, revolutionary insight into the intentions of a well-meaning God; the literary genius to capture that God (and God’s relationship to a chosen people) on paper; and the enfolding of communal life into the volumes of laws, commentaries and stories that have, in Konner’s words, "saved the Jews" from extinction.
The key to all this, as I am far from the first to say, is the literary achievement. The writing, editing and compiling of the holy books (capturing "black fire on white fire," as the Midrash describes the writing of the Torah) allowed the searing religious insights to settle. And the high-wire act of connecting God’s cosmic will to a minor people’s daily existence led to a lifestyle that was simultaneously spiritually charged and full of common sense.
Two recent publications, coming from completely different angles, have underscored the nature and implication of the Bible’s literary achievement.
The first is the publication of the newly discovered "The Gospel of Judas" (National Geographic), a second-century retelling of the story of Jesus and Judas that makes the latter the hero rather than the villain. In an essay in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik makes a relevant point: The book is far inferior as a literary product to the traditional New Testament Gospels, turning Jesus into a smirky, otherworldly figure as it flattens his ethical teachings. Gopnik reminds us that it is the cumulative value of language itself that presses ideas, no matter how morally or spiritually compelling, into permanence.
Stephen Greenblatt’s magisterial biography of Shakespeare, "Will in the World" (Norton), helps us see that many of the Bard’s striking innovations had already been used by ancient writers. Just as Shakespeare muddied up the motives of characters he lifted from older plays, the Bible confused (and deepened) characters and stories from earlier Near Eastern narratives. In "Unsettled," Konner contrasts the flood of the Babylonian Gilgamesh epic, a melodrama of "human weakness and godly power," with the intricate moral dilemmas of the story or Noah, in which God’s and Noah’s values are complex and hard won.
What is so interesting about Passover is the way in which the story of the Jews and their lived experience merge: we enact the story almost literally as we change our diet, recline on pillows and the like. The moral implication of this is that the life of letters is valuable only to the extent that it is literally embodied.
On Rosh HaShanah we say that we are written in the Book of Life, but during Passover we rewrite the story of our affliction and deliverance, taking special care to note the pain suffered even by our oppressors: the Egyptians harmed by the plagues and by the closing of the Red Sea over their heads. Which brings us back to Coote’s point: "the mystery of vitality and enterprise in the face of oppression and the miracle of resistance and tyranny." At the end of our seder, it seemed appropriate to say that the goal of retelling our past should be a re-imagining of our future: a future that must include the safety of innocent people in Darfur, along with that of Jews in Israel and elsewhere. If for thousands of years we have shed tears of wine for our oppressors, we must be able to shed real tears for innocent victims living not so far from where the Jews experienced their first national liberation.
So let us simmer a little longer in the insights and poetry of Exodus, imagining that our story of deliverance is a miracle that we can deliver to others.
Daniel Schifrin is a writer and editor living in Berkeley, Calif.