This week we begin the book of Exodus, that grand sweeping saga of a people moving from slavery to freedom (or alternately, a ragtag quasi-tribal work crew growing into – and complaining incessantly about – their liberation). Either way, I love this story. I love the suffering and the release, the resistance (see: midwives) and the foot-dragging (see: Moses at the burning bush). The nay-sayers and prophets. No wonder De Mille and Spielberg tried to capture the epic on film.
We think of this book of the Torah as “Exodus”, but it’s known in Hebrew as “Names” (Shemot) because it starts with a remembering of the names of those who went down to Egypt – Reuven, Levi, Judah, etc., and goes on to paint a picture of a fertile and unmanageable people, whose original numbers grow and grow until the land is filled to the top with them (think: swarming locusts). Slavery doesn’t seem to phase them, nor does increased oppression: they continue to multiply. Four hundred years into the story, Moses is born, saved, given to Pharaoh’s daughter, chased out of Egypt, married off to a Midianite woman, turned into a shepherd, confronted with the sight of a fiery bush in the desert, treated to a recalcitrant Pharaoh, and cursed by the Israelites for arguing with the powers that be.
Whew. This week’s poem, What Is Held Within, was an attempt to capture the whole magnificent story and boil it down to these key themes: naming, slavery, fire, oppression, and our own complicity in maintaining the status quo. We’ve been taught that the Egyptians are the bad guys in this either-or narrative — but surely we can identify with them just a little bit, the ease with which they put up with other people’s suffering.
Small brag: This poem was a finalist for the 2008 Rita Dove Poetry Award.