April 15, 2011

Exodus: The Rest of the Story—What Do You Think They Did After They Were Freed?

As a yogi, I take my spiritual wisdom wherever I find it. That includes conventional religion on the rare occasions when I’m exposed to it. Since, at certain times of year, we’re bombarded by biblical tales that people take as literal truth or historical fact, I figure I may as well read between the lines and extract some symbolic and metaphorical meaning from them. One of those occasions is coming up, when Passover calls attention to one of the Western world’s most powerful stories. It is not just Jews who are moved by the tale of Moses leading the Hebrews out of slavery, but also Christians and Muslims and even secularists, who (sans miracles) have drawn upon the story to combat various forms of oppression. The Exodus saga evokes the human instinct to escape from bondage; it inspires hope for achieving liberation; and, for the religious, it describes a particular kind of interaction between the human and the divine. For all those reasons and more, it has been a world-shaping archetype.

I was raised to think it was a bunch of hooey (my mother liked the word hooey). My secular, atheist parents had no use for religious texts or rituals, and even less for tales of the miraculous, so I never even witnessed a seder until I was a grown man. Forced to attend them, I learned to use the occasions as a time to reflect on my inner life: Egypt stood for the land of maya; the Pharaoh symbolized the samskaras and vasanas and psychological “stuff” that keep me oppressed; Moses was the inner warrior who could overcome the obstacles to spiritual freedom; the miracles were the actions I needed to take to escape my bondage; the Promised Land was moksha. It worked well enough for me to learn some good lessons instead of resenting the boredom and bad food.

Then one year I got curious. I realized that the Exodus story is always rendered with a neat beginning, middle and end: the enslaved underdogs overcome impossible odds to get to their prophesied homeland, and their aging leader poignantly dies before he can enter the Promised Land with his people. End of story, now let’s eat. I wondered what happened next. Did the Hebrews go to Milk and Honey Real Estate and purchase a parcel of land? Did they scope out some choice properties and offer the owners market value? I dug out a Bible and … well folks, hide the children, this one is R rated.

The supposed good guys crossed the river Jordan and laid waste to Jericho. They invaded. They conquered. They pillaged. As described in the Book of Joshua, “The army advanced on the city, every man straight ahead, and took it. Under the ban they destroyed everything in the city; they put everyone to the sword, men and women, young and old, and also cattle, sheep, and asses.” In the aftermath, the Bible informs us, God tells Joshua, “I deliver the king of Ai into your hands, him and his people, his city and his country. Deal with Ai and her king as you dealt with Jericho and her king.” And so he does. “The number who were killed that day, men and women, was twelve thousand, the whole population of Ai.”

It doesn’t stop there. In a series of massacres that would take Jerry Bruckheimer or Mel Gibson a full miniseries to depict, Joshua takes on other tribes, and “he left no survivor, destroying everything that drew breath.” And there is no denying that the invaders, like today’s suicide bombers, acted on what they considered God’s will. Those who stood in their way “were annihilated without mercy and utterly destroyed, as the Lord had commanded Moses.”

It is understandable that parents and religious leaders would choose to end the story before the bloody denouement, just as schoolteachers used to depict the westward march of American settlers without the inconvenience of slaughtered Indians. But we’ve learned that denial of the shadow does more harm than good, haven’t we? At a time when jihad is in the forefront of our minds and certain religious leaders use passages from the Koran to back their claim that Islam is, by its nature, a violent religion, we need to acknowledge the dark side of all traditions. So, in the spirit of exposing the shadow in order to move faster into the light, I encourage everyone who’s exposed to the Passover saga to boldly but politely inquire: Have you heard the rest of the story? You might push some buttons, and you may not be invited back to next year’s seder, but there are worse things – like denial. If we’re going to tell teaching stories in the first place, we owe it to ourselves to make them complete teachings.

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