The interpretation of the Bible and its stories is a time-honored tradition in Judaism, one that dates back over two millennia. Since the fall of the second temple in 70 C.E., such interpretation has gone by the name of midrash. However, midrash is not simply the act of clarifying difficult Biblical passages or wrestling with abstruse questions that most of us would find utterly irrelevant. (To debate the number of angels crowded atop the head of a pin is not midrash.) Midrash is not purely a scholarly endeavor, because its goal is not scholarship per se. Rather, midrashic interpretation reflects an ongoing attempt to unearth the hidden truth latent in scripture, to peel away the corrosive patina accumulated over many years of reading with eyes clouded by convention, and reveal the pure shining essence of divine wisdom. By applying different glosses, different lenses, to the old, time-worn Bible tales, we can find in them startling new layers of meaning—like placing a dull rock under a black light to reveal luminous veins of color otherwise hidden to the eye.
I would like to share a new and quite radical midrash regarding the story of Exodus, one that I have found extremely powerful. It broadens our understanding of Judaism by linking it with the mystical quest at the heart of all the worlds’ great religious traditions, both Eastern and Western. It simultaneously deepens our relationship to Judaism by making Exodus personally relevant. As the Passover Haggadah makes abundantly clear, the story of Moses and Pharaoh applies to all of us, now, in the present tense. We’re enjoined to celebrate as if God had led us personally from bondage in Egypt. This is not mere metaphor, nor is it hyperbole. Viewed through the lens of this incisive new midrash, Exodus leaps into blazing color as a model for the spiritual journey itself—a roadmap for our own passage out of bondage and into freedom.
So, what is this midrash? How can we use it to bring forth the true colors of Exodus? We start with the understanding that Exodus is far more than just a simple story about winning freedom. It is an allegorical portrait of the human mind. Its two central characters—Pharaoh and Moses—are not just historical figures, not just characters in a biblical drama. They are archetypes that portray opposing aspects of the human mind in its relationship to Spirit.
Pharaoh represents the part of the mind that sees itself as separate from God and Spirit: the limited ego-mind. Moses represents the part of the mind that is and has always been in full, direct connection with God and Spirit—what I call the Moses-mind. Both are present within us. The plagues brought on by Pharaoh’s stubborn resistance to freeing the Hebrews are our plagues. They afflict us whenever we bow to the Pharaoh-like ego—when we identify with it and accept its goals as our own. Likewise, the miracles performed by Moses are our miracles. They arrive the moment we make the decision, consciously or unconsciously, to be free from ego and follow instead the guidance of Spirit that comes to us through the Moses-mind.
The Hebrews of Exodus are tossed back and forth between these two powerful, opposing forces. They toil in slavery under Pharaoh with no hope of release. When Moses first appears, they reject his help. After the devastation of the tenth plague, he leads them out of Egypt and across the seemingly impassable barrier of the Red Sea. Despite these miracles, however, when faced with the forbidding desolation of the wilderness, they question his guidance. Yet at Mount Sinai, they cling to Moses, refusing to let him go, retreating from a direct encounter with God, because He seems too fearful.
In their vacillation, the Hebrews offer a compelling portrait of our own spiritual dilemma—a mirror of our own confused wanderings as we seek the Promised Land of inner peace and freedom. To whom do we listen, Moses or Pharaoh? Which voice is stronger in us? Which the more trustworthy? Their agendas for us are starkly opposite. So which do we choose to follow?
We are the Hebrews—all of us, regardless of our religious affiliation—and the journey of Exodus reflects our ongoing struggle as we’re pulled between these two dueling aspects of the mind: ego and Spirit, Pharaoh and Moses. This makes Exodus as relevant today as it was 3,000 years ago, for the human mind has not changed.
The Hebrews’ journey, with its triumphs and failures, can cast a light to help guide us along our own paths. For like the Hebrews of Exodus, we have not yet reached the Promised Land. We are still en route, still in the process of making that journey. Perhaps now, with this midrash in hand, and with the help of Spirit, we can complete the journey together.
(Excerpted in part from the book From Plagues to Miracles: The Transformational Journey of Exodus, From the Slavery of Ego to the Promised Land of Spirit, by Robert Rosenthal, M.D., Hay House, 2012.)