Should we stay or should we go?
1981 lyrics by The Clash, apropos of this week’s Torah portion: If I go there will be trouble / If I stay there will be double / So you gotta let me know / Should I stay or should I go?
And so it begins – God leads the newly freed slaves the long way around on the way to the promised land, lest they change their minds and yearn to go back to the land of fleshpots (as in giant stew cauldrons). The land of slavery, yes, but a world of familiar rules and limited catastrophes. Not the monochrome desert spread out in every direction and filled with unknown adversaries, human and natural. And then the worst possible thing that could happen happens: Egyptian chariots come barreling out behind them as they stand in front of The Sea. What have you done to us? they cry. Surely we will die here.
It’s at this point in the story that Moses complains to God, whose reply is a moment of Divine pique: Why are you complaining to me? Tell the Israelites to get going, then raise up your arm and part the Sea. The midrash/ commentary tells us that it was Nachshon (descendant of Judah, ancestor of King David, a lineage you gotta love) who walked first into the waters, and only when he was up to his neck did the miracle actually occur. It was this drama that my poem Exodus Villanelle is trying to capture.
Two quick notes:
1. This is a fairly light-hearted poem, though the situation itself is one of life and death. As my friend Josh argued at Torah study last week – these are serious times for the newly freed slaves. They weren’t just complaining for the heck of it. Point taken, but I just couldn’t get the image of thousands of kvetching Hebrews out of my head.
2. Near as I can tell, there were no tomatoes in Egypt (as in the poem), because they’re native to South America. I don’t know how they got in the verse (my notes are unclear) and I can’t figure out whether to substitute the more historically accurate cucumber. Thoughts welcome.