The Centrality of Desire in the Messiness of Human Life, and God’s Too
by Krista Tippett, host
I still have a vivid memory of the first time I interviewed Avivah Zornberg. I had experienced her through the Bill Moyers series Genesis, and through her powerfully, lushly written books about the Bible. I brought one of mine into the studio that day — Everett Fox’s The Five Books of Moses, a translation that sacrifices English clarity to let the visual wordplay of the original Hebrew come through. In the end, I closed my eyes, and did something closer to entering the text than discussing it. That’s what Avivah Zornberg makes possible.
That first time, for Passover, we were looking at the iconic story of Exodus, which has inspired so many people in so many places across time, far transcending its appearance as words on a page. This time, I sat down in her living room in the Old Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem and began the conversation by wondering where she might want to go. She was as delightful and gracious in her whole being as she is with her voice. We decided to start with the story of Noah and the Flood — chapter 6 in the book of Genesis — and see where it might take us.
This of course is one of those stories that many of us have heard in Sunday school, or seen in Technicolor at the movies, and heard references to and jokes about all our lives. But Avivah Zornberg knows the Hebrew Bible’s actual words and cadences by heart. She approaches it with the foundational mystical text of the Zohar. She applies the ancient Jewish art of midrash, reading between the lines with imagination, poetry, sensuality, and a sense of humor. And she uncovers stories within the story that open up the “biblical unconscious” and speak in unexpected ways to human life.
With her, we see that the biblical flood in some sense un-creates the world that has just been created. But the corruption that led to this undoing was not merely one of fleshly sin and violence; it was a loss of the connective tissue of language between human beings. “They have become so open,” Avivah Zornberg has written of the flood generation, “that they are closed to one another.”
Likewise, in Hebrew, the “ark” into which Noah retreats contains allusions to “word” as well as to “box.” This uncommunicative, self-absorbed man seems, upon closer examination, a strange choice for God to appoint to save all life on Earth. But precisely in his awkward imperfection, Noah embodies one of the qualities I love about the Hebrew Bible. It is an honest, unvarnished account of the messiness of life — the failed and flawed nature even of our greatest leaders. There are no storybook heroes in the Hebrew Bible. They are us, just as they are in real life. So even Noah, in one of those ironies of the human condition, finds himself imprisoned by the box/ark that is his claim to greatness.
That day in Avivah Zornberg’s living room, we walked backwards in Genesis — from Noah and the Flood to the creation story of Adam and Eve and Eden. Here too we find ironies that we recognize at the center of ourselves. From the Hebrew, Eden can also be translated as “delight” — “land of pleasure.” Everything is beautiful and perfect and delicious here. But it is the one tree in the center of the garden, from which God has asked Adam and Eve not to eat, that they desire.
The theme of desire — its centrality in moving human life forward, the way we struggle to both honor and order it — runs throughout Avivah Zornberg’s vision of how this text might tell us the story of ourselves. And, like the Bible itself, she does not condemn the fact of desire so much as seek to understand it. For the consciousness that desire enlivens is also a primary source of awareness and intentionality; it’s our choices that have the power to redeem us, not an impossible striving toward perfection.
I’ll leave you with a line to entice you to listen to my conversation with Avivah Zornberg. She says of the power of Adam’s telling of the first lie:
“Brodsky said consciousness, human consciousness, begins with one’s first lie… That’s when we begin to be aware of the complexity in ourselves and the different impulses. And that’s where poetry comes from as well. You know, not only bad things come from saying two things at the same time. As long as you have a kind of straight unequivocal immaculate version of things, then there can be no poetry and there can be no tension, no desire again. Desire makes itself felt when language comes alive.”
The Exodus Story and the Necessity of Desire for Liberation
by Krista Tippett, host
In this week’s show, we hold the Exodus story up to the light and turn it — like a jewel, the ancient rabbis would say. And Avivah Zornberg tells us what she sees: astonishing detail, hues of meaning, and a cargo of hidden stories. We follow Zornberg and find ourselves addressed, whoever we are. This story, among all the narratives of the Hebrew Bible, has proven itself a bearer across time of near-universal themes.
Scholars locate it in history. But Exodus also qualifies lavishly for my favorite definition of “myth” — a word we’ve diminished, equated with things that are not “true.” Myth, said the Greek statesman Solon, “is not about something that never happened. It is about something that happens over and over again.” In a paraphrase I also love, Rabbi Sandy Sasso once said to me about the Exodus story, with its irresistible dramatic potential: “What happened once upon a time happens all the time.”
Judaism indulges this insight with its practice of midrash — a practice of seeking multiple meanings in sacred text, of treating gaps in the story as invitations. At one and the same time, midrash takes the text seriously and honors the personal, moral struggle of the reader in every generation to interpret and apply it.
Midrashic explications of Exodus take us far from the simple children’s book tale that would pit a heroic Moses against a villainous Pharaoh and end happily ever after. But it starts with the bare bones of the story. In the act of retelling, of walking attentively through the story, something magical happens with the basic contours of character and plot. Layer upon layer of meaning emerge — alternately whimsical and challenging. This is storytelling for adults.
I won’t try to recreate Avivah Zornberg’s guided walk through Exodus. I’ll just share some high points, the kind of revelation that is possible with the tools at her disposal. Most basic and important of all, perhaps, is her close knowledge of the original Hebrew. Hebrew is a visual language, full of allusive imagery and evocative word play, and that is invariably lost in translation. In the Exodus epic, Moses first encounters God in a burning bush. Avivah Zornberg translates the name that God gives from the burning bush, “I Will Be Who I Will Be.” This is no less inscrutable than the usual English translation, “I Am Who I Am.” But Zornberg’s translation suggests something others miss: the evasiveness and — one might say — defiance of a God who refuses to be captured, to be reduced to human limitation. “I will be who I will be” suggests infinite possibility.
Moses before the burning bush (photo: Edward Lim/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
From raw materials of word and narrative, Avivah Zornberg uncovers in Exodus a rich commentary on human nature at its best and at its worst, in the powerful and in the weak. She draws fascinating and resonant observations about the madness and self-defeat of the authoritarian personality, for example. She explores the personal vigor and vision that are required if victims are to cease being victims. She reads Exodus as a tale of passion — of God’s aroused attention to the enslaved people’s suffering, and a subsequent longing on the part of God that mirrors the more predictable longing of human beings in the other direction.
Avivah Zornberg calls her book about Exodus The Particulars of Rapture. She is interested in the rapture of the accomplishment of freedom, and of relationship between human beings and God. But she acknowledges, as does the sacred text, that rapture rarely comes unalloyed. Her passion, if you will, is for the details — the particularities — that render this narrative humanly accessible as much as divinely inspired, that keep it open and relevant to new generations. She draws on poetry, modern literature, and psychology as she makes sense of this text in our lifetime, and she takes her title itself from these lines of a poem by Wallace Stevens:
Two things of opposite natures seem to depend
On one another, as a man depends
On a woman, day on night, the imagined
On the real. This is the origin of change.
Winter and spring, cold copulars, embrace
And forth the particulars of rapture come.
Photo of Avivah Zornberg by Debbi Cooper