Saturday, January 17, 2009

Shmot - Zornberg on VaYishretzu

The following is excerpted from Aviva Zorberg's The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus.

These are the dead; listed to tell the reader that they are no more. In Jewish tradition the book is called The Book Of Names: The reference is clearly to the names of the children of Israel, those individuals who, in a moment of history went down to Egypt and died there, together with their brother Joseph, who had preceded them.
What follows, however, on this meticulous listing of the dead, is an explosion of life, an almost surrealistic description of the spawning of a nation. Nameless, faceless, these too are the children of Israel... "Even though Joseph and his brothers died, their G-d did not die, but the children of Israel were fruitful and multiplied." The Midrash (Shemot Rabba 1:7). The Midrash here wants to decipher the cascade of births not only as blessing, but as the "survival of G-d." The generation that connects with the meaningful past is all gone. But in some way that is not fully explained here, G-d expresses his undimmed vitality in the language of physical fertility.
An alternative reading of this passage, however, would take its cue from the ambiguous expression "vayishretzu" - "they swarmed" This can mean the blessing of extraordinary increase, but it connotes a reptilian fecundity, which introduces a bizarre note in a description of human fertility. In this second view, vayishretzu, is a repellent description for a family fallen from greatness."

Nameless, faceless, these too are "the children of Israel." How are we to read this description of theier anonymous fecundity? There are two possible understndings. On the one hand, this is a celebation of fullness, of life burgeoning and unontained. This reading would be a fulfilment of G-d's promise to Jacob: "Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation" (Genesis 46:3). The redundant descriptions of fertitlity have been read as denoting multiple births, healthy developments, absence of fetal, infant, or adult mortality. In the midrashic readings, there is a miraculous, even a whimsical sense of the outrageous victory of life over death: these, for instance, take the six exprssions of fertility (they were fruitful, they swarmed, they multiplied, very, very much) to indicate that each woman gave birth to sextuplets ("six to a belly").

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