Sermon: Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach
Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 15 April 2017
In a previous existence, when I was a geography student at LSE in the early 1960s, I did a year of psychology. It was an absolute eye-opener for me, my first real encounter with the ideas of many of the great thinkers in this area. I read avidly and widely of many of Sigmund Freud’s works, in particular, though in a pretty unstructured, certainly unguided, way. I’ve no idea how much, at that time, I really understood or not.
I didn’t read his last book until much later. Perhaps both words of the title suggested areas I wasn’t, at that time, particularly interested in. The book was Moses and Monotheism and it is quite a strange work. It was published in 1939, by which time Freud had escaped from Vienna and was living in London.
“Here I live now,” he writes in the preface, “a welcome guest relieved from oppression and happy that I may again speak and write as I want or have to.” He recognises that what he is writing in Moses and Monotheism may lose him friends. “This does not mean,” he writes, “that I lack conviction in the correctness of my conclusions…. A conviction I acquired in 1912 when I wrote my book Totem and Taboo. From then on I have never doubted that religious phenomena are to be understood only on the model of the neurotic symptoms of the individual as a return of long-forgotten important happenings in the primeval history of the human family.”
In Moses and Monotheism, Freud writes what we might call a psycho-history of Moses, a historical novel relying heavily on psychoanalytic insights.
Fairly early on in the book, Freud looks at the story surrounding Moses’ birth and childhood, and refers to other myths, from other cultures, about the origins of the ‘hero.’
Most peoples and cultures have a story about their founding ‘hero.’ Often it is somebody of noble origin whose birth is fraught with danger. As a baby they are exposed to the elements in a way that would normally lead to death – sometimes by being placed in a box and thrown into the water. “The exposure in the basket,” says Freud, “is clearly a symbolical representation of birth; the basket is the womb, the stream the water at birth.” The child is rescued, brought up by adoptive parents, and neither they nor the child are aware of its real origins. It is a story told about the Babylonian Sargon and the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh; it’s Oedipus in Greek mythology, Romulus in Roman and so on. It is also the story of Moses. The theme recurs, even in modern mythology. So, for example, in Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is of noble Jedi Knight origin but only finds out in the course of his heroic journey. With Moses, of course, it’s reversed: born of humble origins, he’s raised as a prince.
I have always been fascinated by Moses’ conversion experience, that moment where he acted in a decisive but totally uncharacteristic, until then, way. The Bible tells us very little. When Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labours. Strange. Had he never seen these slaves before? He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen  A common enough sight, surely? A bit of dramatic irony tells us they are his kinsfolk: we know it, though he doesn’t. For him, presumably, they are just a few more slaves being whipped by an Egyptian taskmaster. Nothing unusual in that, one would have thought.
But this time something is different. He turned this way and that and seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.  Remarkable! An Egyptian taking sides with a slave?! And not just any old Egyptian, but Pharaoh’s adopted son.
“Seeing no one about” suggests that the only people on the scene were Moses, the Egyptian taskmaster and the Hebrew slave. But is it likely that an Egyptian prince would simply wander about on their own, without their entourage, their security guards, especially in an area where slaves are working? The Hebrew gives us a clue: vayar ki eyn ish – he looked and saw that there was, literally, no one about. But there must surely have been lots of people around: other slaves, Moses’ retinue, Egyptian taskmasters and the like. But everybody kept their heads down, nobody prepared to stand up and say “what is happening here is wrong!”
In that act, Moses crossed the boundary between the powerful and the powerless and identified completely with the latter. He has repudiated his princely status, and will have to escape to the desert where he will come to the Burning Bush and accept the mantle of leadership.
Just a couple of verses then but so densely packed! What does Freud make of this? In other myths the adoptive parents are of humble origins and the child discovers he’s a prince. Freud notes that Moses isn’t the ordinary guy discovering that he belongs, by birth, to a nation of slaves.
Freud surely missed the point. If the Moses myth doesn’t fit the pattern, then it must be wrong. “Further thought,” says Freud, “tells us that an original Moses myth of this kind, one diverging from other birth myths, could not have existed.” In other words, Moses really was an Egyptian prince. Had that been the case, however, he would have been totally uninteresting.
That is why that conversion moment, that reversal of the normal mythology is so interesting; comparable – impossible to imagine! – a Goering or a Goebbels in Nazi Germany declaring they were Jewish, starting to wear a yellow star and so on.
Moses reminds us that royalty and nobility aren’t about position and power, wealth or privilege. Nobility is about the choices we have to make, that moment where we have to decide who we are, where we stand.
Leo Baeck called the Jews the ‘no-sayers’ of history. They saw the splendour that was Egypt, they saw all the things that have enthralled tourists 3 millenia later: the Temples, the Pyramids, the Valley of the Kings and so on. But they knew what lay behind all those wonderful edifices. They had experienced the oppression and cruelty that had built them. They knew that it was all built on a heart of darkness. And, as Jews, we have said a resounding “no” to all of that.
Moses’ message was that a child of slaves can be greater than a prince. The myth can be reversed to hold out a message of hope. God’s standards are not those of power and privilege.
We don’t know if Moses ever existed. There is no record, outside of the Torah, of a Moses, or of Hebrews slaves in Egypt, of Ten Plagues or an Exodus.
Yet this epic story continues to grip all those who are not free, who see themselves as the contemporary – whenever ‘contemporary’ is – Hebrew slaves sweltering under the weight of oppression. It’s no accident, for example that negro spirituals sing of ‘go down Moses,’ that Martin Luther King in his famous “I have a dream” speech speaks of seeing the Promised Land. The story of the Israelites in Egypt became the model for any enslaved people, any liberation movement which knew the Bible. They read the story of the Hebrews in Egypt and saw it as their story.
How do we hold on to that task of being ‘no-sayers,’ of not being bamboozled by wealth or power, of joining our voices with all those who speak out against cruelty and oppression?
Freud got it wrong or failed to grasp the message of what he was saying. The Bible presents Moses as the anti-hero – not the commoner and lowly-born who discovers his royal status but the prince who discovers his lowly status and gives up all the privileges and trappings of wealth and power. He might have given up the kingdom – but in so doing he gained the world.
- Freud, Moses and Monotheism (Vintage Books, Random House, New York nd.)
- ibid p9
- Exodus 2:11
- Exodus 2:12
- ibid p11