By RACHEL SABATH BEIT-HALACHMI
Like a chorus throughout the Bible: "we were slaves," frames who we are. All the rest, as Hillel said in another context, is commentary. But within that commentary are important texts about the experience of slavery and what it did to us. How did we maintain our identity when we could barely survive? How did we maintain hope? These questions about identity and hope are no less important than how we celebrate – especially in these days – our freedom.
According to some commentaries their identity was maintained because they kept their sacred language alive and insisted on keeping their Hebrew names. Was it the strength of their identity that empowered them and enabled them to survive? According to another Midrashic text, however, it seems that their hope was also a product of an ongoing and subversive sexual rebellion.
The Book of Exodus begins with the epic tale of a new Pharaoh who didn’t know Joseph and was terrified of the numbers and threatening cultural power of the Israelites (Exodus 1: 9-11) and thus horrifically enslaved them and nearly succeeded in a genocide campaign against them by demanding that every son that is born be cast into the river. (Exodus 1:22)
How did the Israelites physically and spiritually survive such a reality? How is it possible that the Israelite women could continue to conceive and bear children? According to the Biblical text they were blessed not only by God’s presence but by loyal and brave midwives (Exodus 1: 17-21). Yet according to the Midrash (Midrash Tanhuma, Parashat Pekudei), the Israelite women themselves seem to be the heroes of the narrative. When faced with a reality in which the Israelite men were not even allowed to sleep at home, the women focused on seducing their husbands in the fields. A constant campaign of seduction and reproduction was the source of profound hope. And through such seduction and hope, ultimately redemption.
But another fantastical Midrash portrays the Israelite women seducing the men even as they were exhausted by horrific slavery conditions. The women, according to the Midrash, caught fish in the Nile, cooked them, sold them and bought wine and went into the fields and fed their husbands and gave them wine to drink. Thereafter they seduced them into having more children. But even more astonishingly, the Midrash tells of the intricacies of the seduction:
"The women held up mirrors saying: ‘Am more beautiful than you!’ and of course their husbands, [teased and aroused] would say, ‘No, I am more beautiful than you!’ and thus they would ease themselves into desire and have more children." (Midrash Tanhuma. Parashat Pekudei)
Why the mirrors? Wouldn’t the scenes of wine and fish be enough for scenes of seduction and thus fertility and continuity? The mirrors fit the narrative because the Midrash is actually a commentary on Exodus 38:21 in which the Israelites each bring belongings to help construct the tabernacle. According to the same Midrash, Moses questions whether or not the bronze mirrors that the women bring to help construct the tabernacle should be accepted and even threatens the women with violence for bringing them. But none other than God demands that Moses accept the mirrors from the women. Why? Because the bronze mirrors are the very mirrors that the women used to seduce their men while enslaved. With the aid of these mirrors –and the wine and fish— the Israelite women perpetuated hope through the fertility which was possible because of the seduction. From mirrors, flowed desire, and through desire conception and from conception the possibility of ongoing hope about the future.
Yes, the Torah stresses that freedom brings with it enormous responsibility toward all others. But even before we knew freedom, we learned what only the conditions of slavery can confirm: that desire and hope are inextinguishable forces. Even when our bodies were oppressed and even when it seemed there was no hope, our foremothers taught us that hope is in our hands. Hope – even in the darkest times – can be found in the most unlikely places, and perhaps most significantly, especially in the intimacy and beautify of our sacred relationships.
Orignally published in the Jerusalem Post