Midrash in the Prince of Egypt

Shemot By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jan 9, 1999 / 5759 | Torah Commentary

Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Prince of Egypt is a midrash on the exodus story, a specimen of reader participation in the recounting of ancient Israel’s foundation epic. While respecting the articulate contours of the biblical narrative, Mr. Katzenberg fills in the gaps with a distinctly contemporary sensibility. To my mind, the most imaginative and effective of these additions to the text is the relationship between Moses and the pharaoh of the exodus. They are portrayed as half-brothers and childhood friends. The film takes advantage of the Torah’s complete silence on Moses’s long years in the pharaoh’s palace to introduce a dramatic twist and humane subtext to the well-known cosmic contest between the God of the patriarchs and the gods of Egypt. It would have us imagine that in the royal domain Moses not only assimilated the mores of the Egyptian aristocracy, but also became the closest friend of Ramses, who was destined to be the next ruler of Egypt. The first quarter of the film is in fact devoted to the escapades of this carefree and destructive twosome, with Moses clearly the dominant figure.

Though destiny will soon pit these erstwhile “brothers” as mortal enemies, the underlying personal regard and affection are never completely eradicated. Mr. Katzenberg never allows the enemy to be demonized as the wholly other. Their frequent confrontations as national leaders are softened by memory of a time when their individual lives were not yet freighted with such gravity. In a poignant denouement, Ramses, the only Egyptian to survive the surging waters of the Sea of Reeds, fills the air with plaintive calls for Moses, tempering ever so slightly the triumphant rendition of “The Song of Moses” in Hebrew by the Israelites on the other side. A note of sorrow and sadness commingles with the joy of redemption.

The humanization of this ancient conflict, however, reflects not just the war-weary sentiment of American culture at the end of the most bloody century in human history. It also echoes the sacred texts of those once redeemed from Egypt. Mr. Katzenberg’s midrash is authentically Jewish.

As we begin the book of Exodus afresh, we might recall a legislative fragment that embodies an unexpected measure of compassion. Deuteronomy takes up the subject of who may be allowed to join the nation of Israel once it is settled in its own land. Ammonites and Moabites, though distantly related to Israel, are excluded forever, because they treated Israel with unrelieved hostility in the wilderness (23:4-5). But Edomites and Egyptians are to be admitted in the third generation (that is, after living for two generations among Israelites), because the former is descended from Esau, Jacob’s brother, and the latter at one time dealt kindly with Israel. “You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your kinsman. You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land (23:8).” Thus, remarkably, the Torah exhibits no lasting hatred for Egypt. The memory of oppression and suffering is never to obliterate the truth that Egypt was a land that rescued Jacob and his family from famine and afforded them the circumstances to multiply and flourish. Whatever may have happened later, Israel is indebted to Egypt for a short-lived extension of genuine human kindness to total strangers.

The Talmud preserves a popular saying in Babylonia that captures the full force of this magnanimous verse: “You should not throw stones into a well from which you have drunk (B.T. Yevamot 77b).” What I find particularly noteworthy is that this adage does not orginate in the learned circle of the Rabbis. They only justify its thrust by associating it with our scriptural verse. The Torah’s openness to the inclusion of Egyptians into Israel’s body politic is surely informed by this common spirit of human decency, first expressed in folk wisdom.

But elsewhere the Rabbis do voice with equal flair the same noble idea on their own. Their conception of God does not envision any divine joy at the sight of justice meted out to the wicked. God takes no pleasure in the suffering of the sinner. Hence, when the Egyptians drown in the Reed Sea, the Rabbis imagine the angels on high breaking into jubiliation, only to be sternly rebuked by God: “The works of my hands are sinking into the sea and you want to sing (B.T. Sanhedrin 39b)?” The moral force of this searing reprimand asserts that God cares deeply for all the children of Adam and Eve. They are uniformly endowed with God’s imprint, even if they deviate from the paths of justice and righteousness.

Ever since, Jews have tempered their own celebration of Passover, which commemorates the exodus. The full Hallel, the psalms of joyous thanksgiving (113- 118) recited on holidays in the synagogue, is intoned only on the first two days of Passover. On the other six days, several are omitted in deference to the loss of Egyptian life in the wake of Israel’s redemption. Morality is meant to curb our innate disposition for revenge, no matter how warranted or licit. The hope of the future must not be held hostage by the horrors of the past.

Not only does Jeffrey Katzenbeg’s empathetic spirit rest on strong Jewish precedents; it is a timely message for a world wracked by the pathology of victimhood.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Sh’mot are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.