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Narrated Stories, Empathy and the Catharsis of a Unified Identity

mascettiBy Yaakov Mascetti*

The revelation of God to the People of Israel, and the ensuing giving of the Torah, are preceded by an encounter between Moses and his father-in-law, Yitro.

(Ex. 18:1-9) Now Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel His people, how that the LORD had brought Israel out of Egypt. And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after he had sent her away, and her two sons; of whom the name of the one was Gershom; for he said: ‘I have been a stranger in a strange land’; and the name of the other was Eliezer: ‘for the God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh.’ And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, came with his sons and his wife unto Moses into the wilderness where he was encamped, at the mount of God; and he said unto Moses: ‘I thy father-in-law Jethro am coming unto thee, and thy wife, and her two sons with her.’ And Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, and bowed down and kissed him; and they asked each other of their welfare; and they came into the tent. And Moses told his father-in-law all that the LORD had done unto Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the travail that had come upon them by the way, and how the LORD delivered them. And Jethro rejoiced for all the goodness which the LORD had done to Israel, in that He had delivered them out of the hand of the Egyptians.

Yitro’s reaction to Moses’ narration of events, of the wonders and miracles that had fostered the redemption of the people of Israel and the defeat of the greatest power of the known world at the time, is one described by the Torah with one curious verb: וַיִּחַד. There are a number of interesting interpretations of this verb, and although I do wish to keep them in mind as I propose here my own understanding of Yitro’s reaction, it is important for us to make an effort and expose ourselves to the text without the accepted commentaries. Yitro experiences here what Rashi calls a moment of identification with the narrated story, as he has a physical reaction (goosebumps) to his son-in-law’s words. He experiences, as Ibn Ezra points out, a moment of חדווה, a sense of happiness for the great things performed by the One God to the people of Israel – but as the Kitzur Baal HaTurim writes, this is mostly a moment of identification of Yitro with the national destiny of the people, as “his heart becomes one with the One God” and he becomes Jewish. In other words, the verbal narration of a series of events which, we must emphasize, he has not experienced in first person, is so powerful that Yitro’s heart is united with that of the people. The story told by Moses performs, actualizes the intermingling of the non-Jewish individual with the Jewish collective – Moses’ narration is, to use a philosophical term, a speech-act, and the story told is the enactment of a union of the external individual with the internal collective. When Rashi emphasizes Yitro’s physical reaction he echoes, to me at least, Aristotle’s description in the Poetics of the cathartic reaction of the audience to a tragedy:

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.

The narration performs the purgation of emotions, and the audience experiences a moment of cathartic uplifting. Aristotle’s tragic narration is both a moment of identification and spectatorship, proximity and distance, as the audience rests on the solid understanding of the difference between the facts taking place on the stage, and the proximity of the latter with their own individual lives. In the case of Yitro, the narration has a unifying effect – it performs the verbal welding of the non-Jewish individual with the destiny of an ethnic collective it is not part of.

Words are deeds, Wittgenstein once wrote, and they perform actions, possessing a specific force. The Divine words of the Ten Commandments are also performative – they are the immediate merging of the utterance with its meaning, in stark opposition to human utterances, where words are always already open to interpretation. On Mount Sinai, God speaks and the people answer – the Divine word is uttered, and becomes an immediate part of the consciousness of the listeners. Of course, this kind of immediacy is intolerable for the People, and they ask Moses to be the intermediary, and to filter the utterance’s absolute content.

But is that level of intimacy with God something to look up to? Are we to try our best to re-establish that intimacy, or is distance something we should foster, care for, and expand, as the very platform that allows us to express individuality, uniqueness and personal interpretation? Yitro’s story points to a delicate balance – difference and identity, extraneous specificity and coherence. Yitro is a stranger, he is the non-Jewish observer who sees in the legal immediacy fostered by Moses a source of misunderstanding – there must be, between God’s words and the people, between the Law and the individual, filters, obstacles, for there to be individuality and specificity. But at the same time, by virtue of the narration and with the fashioning of a verbal locus of intimacy, there can be moments of communion. Yitro does not merely “rejoice” as the king James translation conveys the Hebrew ויחד – he become one while he is different, joins the destiny of the people within the narrated story. And he does so thanks to his capacity to interpret, to filter, and not despite it – union is not the undermining of specificity, but rather the enhancement of it within the creation of a moment of encounter.

Exodus is a story, not an event – we are to experience the utterance, to live it, to enjoy they moment of encounter with the characters of the story, as we maintain a clear consciousness of our historical and psychological specificity. Union and distance, proximity and detachment.

*Yaakov Mascetti holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University.