Exodus: My Spiritual Map

by Carol Ochs who teaches at Hebrew Union College--Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. She is currently preparing a new edition of her book Women and Spirituality for Rowman and Littlefield Press.

The Bible tells a story with a beginning, a middle, and a projected end. But that story is not where we start from, but what we arrive at. We cannot begin by claiming a story - it is a discovery along the way. At some point, living the spiritual life, we rule out chance and randomness and affirm a plot that preceded our consciousness:

My form was not concealed from You
when I was shaped in a hidden place,
knit together in the recesses of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed limbs,
they were all recorded in Your book;
in due time they were formed
to the very last one of them. (Ps.139:15)

I take that to mean that determinism is not a doctrine, it is a discovery. We discover there is a book, a story of which we're a part. We consent to be a part. This happens for us as a people - Exodus is an older text than Genesis. Genesis 1, which recognizes order in the very structure of creation, is one of the texts of the Torah written last. And, in our "personal Torah" the recognition of the meaningfulness and design of all we have experienced in our lives is left for the last stage of life - the time Erikson labels "integrity." Naturally, we cannot see the whole at the beginning. We tell ourselves that we can; we convince ourselves that we write our story as we live our lives - not that we are lived. Later, we discover the deeper truth of "we are lived," recognizing at the same time that there are no accidents; it all makes sense; and our freedom was never compromised. This last point, the compatibility of freedom and determinism makes no sense before it is experienced.

Even now, like Moses, I have seen the Promised Land from the top of the mountain. I have not touched its soil, breathed its air, or seen its vegetation close up. In so many ways my vision is obstructed. Before I climbed the mountain, I guessed - always incorrectly - about what would distinguish the Promised Land from any other land. I was trying to see my life as a narrative but didn't know in what story I was:

Too much is made of choice:
we merely came the way we could
being what we were, and we were changed
by the terrain we came by. Nor could we
see around a single bend
until we'd turned it.
("It's Not Cold Here," Elinor Wilner)

Freedom is not synonymous with choice. Freedom is being unobstructed, acting out of our deepest nature - that nature that God saw in our unformed limbs.

We've all heard the story before - so we know that the children of Israel were slaves, and we know Pharaoh is the villain; and we know that it is a story about the birth and formation of the Jewish people who will carry the message of Sinai to all the nations of the world. But we look at our own lives and we haven't heard the story before. Just so, the Israelites started their story not knowing that they were enslaved any more than I knew I was a slave. Even now, recognizing that I am not as enslaved as I once was, I still have to ask: in what respects was I a slave? As in Plato's "Allegory of the Cave": we are born in a cave chained from the neck, unable to face the light. What chains us? Some would respond that our senses lead us to look outside instead of within. That is a dualism I reject unless our outward looking is for our roadmap which is within. Our senses are gifts, not distractions, and all of creation can speak to us of the Creator - but freedom is to act from the necessity of our own nature - not to march to anyone else's drummer - even if that drummer praises us, bestows honor on us, or a good salary. Our own desires for honor, wealth, and pleasure of the senses can enslave us. Pharaoh can be aspects of our own selves that are less ultimate than our essential nature. So - finally we learn that we have been enslaved, but we still don't know what the message is that we are to carry to all of humanity. For the true Promised Land is not the simple physical security we first understood when we were led out of our personal Egypts. Just as the Israelites, at the Red Sea, had no notion of Sinai and revelation, so I had no notion of a larger story of which I was a part. I had no notion of purpose, meaning, destiny. I thought of discomfort, fear, major disruption. I sought easefulness, trust, and a newly settled state. I was simply seeking a different Pharaoh - maybe I could live with that Pharaoh and grow old before I recognized that I was again enslaved. All of this was a very slow process. And maybe this can't be written before rigor mortis sets in.


Nor could we see around
a single bend
until we'd turned it.

I keep trying to jump ahead and say, "Aha! so that's what it has all been about." And I'm continually mistaken. So what are all the wrong answers about before we finally live our way into the right answer? The answers are wrong because we're not yet right. We are the answer and we are a work in progress. Along the way - long before the end - there are multiple gifts of joy, of comfort, of nourishment - and there is growth in love. It is in the light of this love that I, at last, have the courage to look at myself (without flinching) and begin to see the me that God loves. But that is the Promised Land. When I can say "Amen" to the me God has known in my mother's womb - even before the earth was formed - then my life too links back to creation. I stand at the beginning and see that it was good. I see that it is good.

Copyright of Cross Currents is the property of Association for Religion & Intellectual Life and its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express written permission except for the print or download capabilities of the retrieval software used for access. This content is intended solely for the use of the individual user. Source: Cross Currents, Winter 1996-1997, Vol. 46 Issue 4.