By Bob Schwartz
The story of the Exodus and Passover is a story about freedom, about faith and about return from exile. It is also a story about the universal question of identity.
According to the Book of Exodus, Moses is born a lowly Hebrew, a child of slaves. Set afloat by his mother to avoid Pharaoh’s slaying of the first born, he is found and given the Egyptian name Moses. He is raised as Egyptian royalty, though as a baby he is literally fed at the breast of his Hebrew mother.
It is never quite clear in the text when or how Moses first finds out about his heritage. We only know that he discovers that he is a Jew. He flees to Midian and marries Zipporah, who bears him a son. In naming that son, Moses tells a story, his own and the story of the Jewish people. He names him Gershom, meaning “I have been a stranger in a foreign land.”
This famous and resonant phrase leads to an intriguing question. Exactly which land is Moses a stranger in? Is he a Hebrew who has been a stranger in Egypt, despite living his entire adult life as one of the greatest Egyptians? Or, is he an Egyptian suddenly identified with a people he never knew as his own?
We find a fascinating clue in the stories about Moses as a speaker. Twice Moses tries to tell God that he is speech challenged. When told to address the Jews, Moses claims to be “slow of tongue” and “heavy of mouth.” When told to speak to Pharaoh, Moses describes himself cryptically as having “uncircumcised lips.” Interpreters often attribute this to an actual speech impediment, perhaps stuttering. But a different view is that Moses is trying to tell God something sensible, perhaps that Moses does not speak Hebrew very well. And why should he speak Hebrew, when he has spent his life as an Egyptian?
At this point in our discussion, we leave Egypt for a brief trip to Cleveland in the 1930s. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster are a couple of somewhat nerdy Jewish teenagers with a love of science fiction and a talent for comic book art. They have naturally grown up with the stories of the Bible, including the tales of Moses. Consciously or not, they mix these together into a comic book creation that would become one of the greatest cultural icons of modern times: Superman.
In the Siegel and Shuster version, there is no infant floated off in a basket to avoid his death, and no Egyptian princess to find and adopt him. Instead, the Kryptonian infant Kal-el (the Hebrew is Kol El, “voice of God” or “all of God”) is rocketed off in a space capsule to avoid the planet’s destruction. The capsule crashes on Earth, and he is found and adopted by the Midwestern couple, Ma and Pa Kent.
The biblical infant is raised as an Egyptian and given the Egyptian name Moses; Kal-el is raised as an earthling and given the Midwestern name Clark Kent. The time will come for both of them, Moses and Clark Kent, to reclaim their true identities in order to tap into great power, to become super men.
But this reclaiming of identity is not without difficulties. The man born Kal-el struggles with his disguises. Is he Superman pretending to be Clark Kent, or is he an earthling who has a second identity as Superman?
These stories of exile and identity are only two of many such stories in history and in popular culture. It is a story that repeats itself again and again, not only among the Jewish people in ancient and modern times, but among all people in all times and circumstances.
Think of the Jews in the midst of their Exodus, chronically uncertain about who they were and where they belonged. As much as they wanted to follow their faith and their leader to a promised place, their adopted home for generations – even if not by choice, even under the oppressor’s thumb – had been Egypt.
Think of Moses, caught between two worlds. Yet his struggle for identity turns out to be a source of strength for him. Had he been only an Egyptian, or only a Hebrew, he could never have accomplished all that he did. It was through his being both, and through his trying to resolve that seeming puzzle, that the events of the Exodus transpired.
Think of ourselves. We may believe that by staying in one place and simply holding tight to an unchanging way, we can maintain an identity free of questions, and we can avoid being strangers in a foreign land. But that is impossible. Those around us are constantly changing and the world around us is constantly changing. The land we think of as familiar becomes foreign to us, and we find ourselves strangers in it.
Being a stranger is unavoidable, and it can be a good thing. Like Moses, we discover who we are only when we question who we are in the place and time we inhabit. Along with the divine direction that he heard, it is this burning question of identity that drove Moses to do great things. It is a valuable lesson for all of us as we retell the story of the Exodus this Passover.
Bob Schwartz is a board member of Temple B’nai Israel Tupelo. He is a lawyer, writer, editor, literary agent, and marketing professonial who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.