'Then Our Mouths Shall Be Full of Laughter'

The stories of Passover celebrate an awakening to unimagined life, a personal paroxysm of redemption within the calamities of a life.

Avivah Zornberg
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Avivah Zornberg

Celebrating Passover, one of the great Jewish festivals, stirs thoughts about the nature of celebration. On the face of it, nothing could be simpler than celebrating an archetypal moment of liberation. And yet, as Adam Phillips points out in a recent essay in his book "On Balance," sometimes our cures - or salvations or celebrations - "expose the full nature of our suffering rather than make it disappear." Sometimes we buy souvenirs to forget where we have been; in a sense, a souvenir celebrates the destruction of the memory, but in the guise of its preservation. Or else, as W.G. Sebald puts it, "perhaps in order to get the full measure of the horrific, one needs to remind the reader of the beatific moments of life."

The beatific moment of the Exodus from Egypt takes place against a background of death and suffering. The many births that attend the creation of the new nation are like explosions of vitality from within a closed and suffocating world. The classic pun mitzrayim/meitzarim (Egypt/straits ) conveys the sense of Egypt as a soul-scape, a place from which no slave ever escaped; narrow straits that allow of no emergence. The newborn is steeped in blood, its life the life of the creature whose margin is death (Ezekiel 16:5-6 ): "On the day you were born you were left lying, rejected, in the open field. When I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you: 'Live within your blood.' Yes, I said to you: 'Live within your blood.'" [I am using the JPS Bible here, but have added my own translations and interpretations - A.Z.]

Gustave Moreau, "Moses by the Nile" (detail), 1878.

We remember the narrative of the midwives, which conveys precisely this sense of life miraculously affirmed in the face of death. Against Pharaoh's decree they protect and nurture the Israelite babies: "And Pharaoh said, '... if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live [literally, she shall live].' The midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live [lit. they gave life to the boys] ... So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, 'Why have you done this thing, letting the boys live?' The midwives said to Pharaoh, 'Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are vigorous [lit. alive]. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth'" (Exodus 1:16-19 ).

The midwives are accused of "letting live"; they respond by speaking of the life-force of the Israelite women. These women are potent creatures - quick, precocious, forestalling all suppression. Their issue will not be quietly strangled in the womb, as the system demands.

This irrepressible creature-ly force has already appeared in the opening description of Israel in Egypt: "The Israelites were fruitful and swarmed and multiplied and increased very greatly and the land was filled with them" (1:7 ) - a six-fold celebration of fertility that leads the midrash to claim that in this explosive time "each belly carried six young." But if this is a celebration of fertility, we notice that it immediately triggers Pharaoh's persecution policy: The Israelites multiply and Pharaoh declares: "Lest they increase (pen yirbeh )."And then, as slavery begins, we read, "the more they were oppressed, the more they increased (ken yirbeh )" . The word-play pulls tight the cords of suffering and fertility, celebration and catastrophe.

And when Moses the redeemer is born, and grows too big to hide, his mother places him in the very river of Pharaoh's decree: "throw him into the river" (1:22 ). He is not submerged, but is floated on top of the river of death and life, in a teiva (closed box ), well-sealed with "bitumen and pitch," the very materials of slavery.

In this floating brick, Moses is found - by another woman, the Egyptian princess, who opens the box, sees him as a crying na'ar (a youth ) and takes pity on him. That is, from the rigid brick-shape emerges a raucous, precocious cry of life and of suffering - perhaps, suggests one midrash, the cry of a suffocating nation. She sees the uncanny force of the baby - and she is credited, at this moment, with seeing the Shechina, the divine Presence. There is an uncanny quality here that captures her gaze and arouses her love and awe. Her vision "births" the child from death to life.

What is striking here is the way that birth comes always stained by the Egyptian darkness. Among all the many calamities of the Egyptian slavery, there are moments of celebration. But these moments have an almost excessive frenetic quality. Six births at a time - or is it 12, or 600,000?; the raucous cries of a baby in a brick; the emergence of a free nation of 600,000 families into a wilderness where all adults will die. What does it mean to celebrate when each birth is a dark reminder of before and after?

Perhaps, as Adam Phillips (writing about Sebald's vision ) says, euphoria is too often the prelude to horror. Could it be that there is something defensive about our celebrations - an excessive, even mechanical quality about our tales of great light superseding the darkness? Are we determinedly refusing to think when we celebrate?

Perhaps Egypt represents not simply death, but a disturbing surplus animation, an almost hypnotic sense of being rigid with energy. Egyptomania, or Egyptian madness, as Eric Santner calls is, would be the experience of being "undead," neither alive nor properly dead. And yetziat mitzrayim - the Exodus, the birth from within such a place - would have to be a genuinely enlivening experience. Can such a moment of shocking release be found in the biblical narrative?

I'd like to suggest that the word chipazon (panicked haste ) goes some way toward evoking this sense of explosive spontaneity. "You shall eat it [the paschal offering] in haste" (13:11 ); "in haste you left the land of Egypt" (Deut. 16:5 ). Birth, redemption occurs as a pure event, surprising both redeemer and redeemed. In a moment, a complex series of subtle interactions comes together and the child is born. Crying and laughing, a nation prematurely comes to life. At this moment, there can be no narrative, no celebration. The after-shock of release still reverberates. Later, there will be stories, versions of the event.

Looking for the history of such moments of paroxysm, we remember the laughter in which Abraham and Sarah gave birth to their son Isaac. Both father and mother of this miracle child laugh when told of his imminent birth. Abraham "fell on his face and he laughed, saying to himself, 'Can a child be born be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah bear a child at ninety?'" (Genesis 17:17 ). Sarah is in her tent, listening to the conversation between her husband and the mysterious man/angel. Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years; Sarah had stopped having the periods of women. And she laughed within herself, saying, "'Now that I am withered, am I to have pleasure - with my husband so old?' Then God said to Abraham, 'Why did Sarah laugh, saying, Shall I really bear a child, old as I am? Is anything too wondrous for God? I will return to you at the same season next year, and Sarah shall have a son.' Sarah denied it, saying, 'I did not laugh,' for she was frightened. But he replied, 'But you did laugh'" (18:11-15 )

Sarah, within herself, is preoccupied by absence, loss, the lack of pleasure. She is strangely animated in her inner accounting of the failure of the life-force. And she laughs; out of her undeadness, something explodes. Is this a skeptical laugh, as some have suggested? The man/angel affirms that nothing is too wondrous for God - or perhaps that nothing is hidden from God, who sees her through and through - and he interrogates her laughter. In fear, she denies, "No, I did not laugh." And he reaffirms, "No, but you did laugh."

This cryptic scene, ending with the man/angel's apparent reproof of Sarah's laughter, leaves the reader baffled at his insistence - an almost comic verbal tussle between him and Sarah - and at the sudden ending of the story. But this moment takes place, according to midrashic tradition, on Passover - and the birth of Isaac will happen on Passover: "ka'et chaya - the time of new life." If Passover is to be the time of new life, then perhaps laughter is essential. Sarah's laugh, then, the midrash suggests, celebrates a new fact, and declares: "Now that I am withered, I have become menstrual"" Suddenly, her body opens up. She laughs out of a complex sense that "This is incredible!" - not skeptically, not forgetting her history of long dry seasons, but in baffled joy. Or perhaps the very idea of such rejuvenation - its absurdity within the closed system of her body and Abraham's - suddenly releases her into the spasm of laughter, which means overflow, excess; and the blood begins to flow. She has cracked up, and at first she is afraid, ashamed. But the man-angel insists, "No, you really did laugh!" The words are left hanging in the air, insisting that Sarah own her laughter and the rupture it has made.

This, then, is the first Passover story: a barren body and the shocking moment of transformation that triggers laughter - and is triggered by it. All Passover stories celebrate an awakening to unimagined life, a personal paroxysm of redemption within the calamities of a life, as it is written: "In every generation, a person should see himself as though he had left Egypt."

How to see that possibility of release, where a new world of possibilities may break through? But perhaps I alone can meaningfully celebrate, tell the story of an event that is always incomplete before I see it and laugh? Only now, and here, in the midst of life, can some fragment of the story be told. "Then our mouths shall be full of laughter."

Avivah Zornberg is the author of books on Genesis and Exodus. Her newest book is "The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious," published by Schocken, U.S.A.