November 16, 2018

Exodus As Performance Art?

John Legend as Jesus.

Most of the stories in the Bible are written using a traditional storytelling narrative format. It reads like a book. There is one glaring exception to this structural conformity in the Exodus story.

Immediately following the 10 miraculous plagues and their dramatic escape from Egyptian servitude, the Israelites are caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. On one side, the Egyptian legions are in hot pursuit of their coveted slaves, while on the other, the raging waters of the Sea of Reeds impede the path of the fleeing Israelites. On God’s command, Moses stretches his arm over the sea and with a Harry Potter-esque flick of his staff, the waters recede. The Israelites dash across the channel to their freedom and the waters crash down upon the Egyptian hordes.

Here the Bible inserts its first, and only, musical number into the narrative. Inspired and awakened by their newfound freedom, Moses and his sister, Miriam, lead the people in the Song at the Sea — a spontaneous ballad offering thanksgiving to God. “I sing a song to the LORD for the LORD is highly exalted … The LORD is my strength and song, and He is become my salvation; this is my God, and I will glorify Him; my father’s God, and I will exalt Him.”

To me, nothing in the Bible requires a greater suspension of disbelief than this moment. Seconds earlier, the Israelites were rescued from certain death by the slimmest of margins. Sure, they felt great relief, but real people in real life do not spontaneously burst into song. That happens only in musicals.

The Song at the Sea is built right into the original text of the Exodus story. It is ready for Broadway.

When I want to say thank you in real life, I make a phone call. I write an email or send a text. I definitely do not grab a microphone, strike up the band lying in wait just in case I need to serenade somebody and sing a song of gratitude. But that does describe the Song at the Sea. The Israelites are saved, Miriam picks up a tambourine and Moses starts singing. It is such a cliche. A classic trope of musical theater or film — singing a wordy song instead of speaking like people do in real life.

I had this epiphany while watching NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert” on NBC on Easter Sunday, along with 10 million other viewers. There are no songs in the original text of the Jesus story, so Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice created a musical version. But the Exodus story actually includes a “musical episode.” The Song at the Sea is built right into the original text. It is ready for Broadway.

Music possesses an extraordinary power to convey emotion more efficiently and effectively than words. Art does not always attempt to impart facts or historical truth. Rather, it moves us, inspires us, nourishes our souls.

In many places, the Torah is more like art than like real life. Torah is a collection of stories, ideas, rules and wisdom for improving ourselves and the world. Torah should move us, inspire us and nourish our soul. Sometimes performance art — even Torah — needs a shortcut like music to get us there.

The emotional peak of the Exodus is the moment our forefathers set foot on the other side of the sea and turned their heads to witness the entire Egyptian fleet drowning. In order to feel that moment, we need a shortcut. We need a song. At this point, we might even need an entire musical.

Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

Movies that Stirred My Passovers

The best Bible stories are religious epics. The best Hollywood filmmakers are some of the greatest storytellers in the world, and I have been spiritually moved and inspired by Hollywood retellings of our ancient religious stories.

With Passover upon us, I’m reminded of three specific movies that opened my eyes anew to the story of the Exodus.

“The Prince of Egypt”

This 1998 kid-friendly animated version of the Passover story from Dreamworks focuses on two brothers — Moses and Rameses, the eventual Pharaoh of the Passover story. I never even thought of this sibling dynamic until I saw this movie. It is the simplest insight but profoundly transformative.

Moses knows Rameses and the royal family better than he knows his brother, Aaron, and sister, Miriam. Imagine Moses’ inner conflict. He is being pulled in opposite directions as his Jewish and Egyptian identities wrestle for control of his destiny. That inner struggle sounds like every inner monologue of every Jewish American I know. Moses becomes more relatable through “The Prince of Egypt.”

“Exodus: Gods and Kings”

This 2014 movie starring Christian Bale as Moses was awful, but it still transformed the Exodus story for me.

One of the film’s biggest flaws is how we are made to empathize more with Rameses than with Moses. Like “The Prince of Egypt,” the two brothers are set on a collision course for control of the dynasty. Moses does not want the position, but he is superior to Rameses in every way. Rameses is fueled by jealousy, which turns to rage.

My then 4-year-old said, “How could a movie about this story not be amazing? It’s the greatest story of all time!”

The most emotional part of the story is Rameses losing his son to the plague of the first born. It’s a jarring feeling but it awakened a part of the story in me that is usually too easy to ignore. Pharaoh and the Egyptians had families and lives. Even if many of them deserved to be punished, their suffering should tug at our heartstrings.

“The Lion King”

This 1994 animated film is about a prince who is exiled because he is afraid of being prosecuted for murder. He has a supernatural vision that convinces him to return to his birthplace and rescue his tribe. It sounds just like the story of Moses to me.

The twist is that Simba is convinced to return to Pride Rock only when Nala mentions his family back home is hoping for his return. God does the same for Moses when he tells him that his brother, Aaron, is waiting for him back home. I find this especially meaningful because Passover has become the holiday of family.

Hollywood showed me the depth of the Exodus story as a story, and now I relate to it as a child hearing the story for the first time. I’ll never forget my then 4-year-old son’s shock when I told him “Exodus: Gods and Kings” was a flop. He said, “How could a movie about this story not be amazing? It’s the greatest story of all time!”

Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

The Emotional Mission of ‘7 Days in Entebbe’

Operation Thunderbolt ranks as one of the most dramatic events in the brief history of the State of Israel. The miraculous story of Israeli commandos flying literally under the radar to liberate hostages in Entebbe, Uganda, on July 4, 1976, sounds more like a military fantasy than reality.

When I heard “7 Days in Entebbe” was opening in mid-March, I did some quick math and calculated the Hebrew date was on Rosh Chodesh Nisan. Passover is in the month of Nisan and Nisan is affectionately called the Month of Redemption by the rabbis of the Talmud. There could be no better time to experience a new film about the rescue mission to liberate the captive hostages of the Air France flight. So, on Rosh Chodesh Nisan, I went to see the film with a friend whose father was an Israel Defense Forces commando in Operation Thunderbolt.

I was rooting for this movie but it is overwrought and its messages are unnecessarily ambiguous. Artistically, the film is dragged down by a strange recurring dance sequence punctuated by an even stranger selection of music. Politically, anti-Zionists may call it hasbara (public relations) and Zionists may call it pro-Palestinian propaganda. In fact, it is neither, and that is a very good thing. But I did not go to the theater for the film’s messages, artistry, or its politics. I was there to feel something.

Every Passover, we read the haggadah at the seder and we are reminded of the obligation to imagine ourselves being redeemed from Egypt. For my ancestors, this may have been possible. They were regularly oppressed and routinely persecuted for being Jews, and it was hardly a giant leap to imagine personal slavery in ancient Egypt. But to a proud American Jew, living with equality and freedom, it seems impossible.

I may not be able to imagine myself as a slave in ancient Egypt, but I do have some idea of what freedom feels like.

I think the section of the haggadah asking us to imagine being redeemed actually is teaching us a powerful secret. The point is not to imagine we were actually enslaved and redeemed but to approximate the feelings of redemption that our ancestors felt. The seder and all of its rituals are meant to evoke those feelings. If it doesn’t, we should seek alternate means of achieving this result.

Storytelling is one way to consciously create feelings. A good story connects us to its characters and we are able to experience a version of their feelings. Ideally, the haggadah tells a story that creates this kind of empathetic feeling of redemption for us. However, there are other forms of storytelling that can help us feel the freedom of liberation from slavery, like movies. It’s why I went to see “7 Days in Entebee.”

Toward the end of the film, Defense Minister Shimon Peres celebrates with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Peres and Rabin are the Moses and God of the Entebbe story — a dynamic duo working together to save lives. Peres turns to Rabin and says, “Congratulations, Mr. Prime Minister. You saved 100 Israeli lives today.” When I heard those words, I felt a strong tug on my heart. It was the emotional punch I’d been looking for. The joy of freedom. It was not my freedom, but I felt it anyway.

I will hold onto that spark of redemption and bring it to the seder. I may not be able to imagine myself as a slave in ancient Egypt, but I do have some idea of what freedom feels like thanks to “7 Days in Entebbe.”

Mission accomplished.

Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.