July 14, 2024 /

The Exodus: History or Memory? – April 26, 2019 – 14 Nissan 5779

If there’s one thing that we enjoy, it’s a good story. In fact, one might say that Jews are the original story-telling people. Long before we theologized, philosophized, and rhapsodized about religion, we told stories around the campfire. Judaism does not begin with Shema Yisrael, “Hear O Israel” or “You shall have no other God before me.” It starts with, “In the beginning, God created heaven and earth,” and “I am Adonai your God who took you out of Egypt [here’s how it went down…].”

It’s no accident that Pesach begins with a story. On the first night, we tell the story of the Exodus. There is a whole section of the seder entitled Magid – The Story. But we also create new stories. Who doesn’t have a favorite Passover story of their own? Who was there when you opened the door for Elijah? Do you recall the time that Zaydi hid the Afikomen so well that no one could find it? Remember when Zaydie tried to buy the Afikomen from you for a buck and Bubbie Nettie threatened him with a rolling pin yelling “you cheapskate?” Or, do you remember when Aunt Pauline tried to make Kosher for Pesach cake, even the dog refused to it eat? My son Matthew’s first birthday was over Passover and we made him a Kosher for Passover cake that he refused to eat. It was the first time we ever gave him a cake and he refused it! These personal stories are as much a part of this holiday as the Exodus itself.

We also conclude Pesach with stories as we did this morning with Yizkor. In Yizkor, we recalled stories of those who are dear to us, those who wrote the narrative of our lives, and those who are responsible for who we are. How fitting it is that Yizkor is what helps us conclude Pesach. We remember our loved ones and the chain of tradition that they were a part of — one that stretches back to our Yetziat Mitziyim, our Exodus from Egypt.

Words, and therefore stories, have tremendous power according to our tradition. How does God create the world? Through words, “Yihi Or, let there be light!’ and there was light.” Words can be used to create war, but also to bring on peace. Parents of teenagers know that sometimes one must choose their words carefully or an evening of family games can quickly spin out of control, but finely crafted phrases can also restore harmony and foster Shalom biet before chaos attempts to unbalance the peace.

And stories have tremendous power as well. The Zohar, the basic text of Jewish mysticism, suggests that when we tell the story of the Exodus on the eve of Pesach, we do more than just recall, we adorn God with jewels. As the Kabalistic rabbis believed, it was not just in a figurative sense that we adorned God, but, as they believed, when we tell the Pesach narrative, God is up in heaven being adorned with actual jewels. Therefore, when we tell the Pesach story we bring God’s beauty back into the universe. A universe, which, at times, can be a bleak place – a place that has an absence of God and God’s glory within it.

Those are our mystics, but we know that stories are more than entertainment: they are the language with which we come to understand our place in the world. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “As we sit around the Seder table on Pesach, rehearsing the journey from the bread of affliction to the wine of freedom, we commit ourselves to a momentous proposition: that history has meaning.”

Stories help us to figure out who we are and what we should be. They reassure us – that life does not end at the grave, and that a part of us lives on in the stories others tell about us. Isaac Bashevis Singer put it this way: “When a day passes, it is no longer there. What remains of it? Nothing more than a story. If stories weren’t told and books weren’t written, human beings would live like beasts, only for a day. The whole world, all human life, is one long story.”

In one of the classes I was was teaching before Passover someone brought up an article written by Richard Elliot Friedman, a noted historian, and scholar, who disagreed vehemently with another article written by Rabbis David Sperling and David Wolpe. The rabbinic article stated that the Exodus didn’t happen based on the lack of archeological evidence, amongst other things. Dr. Friedman agrees that it may not have happened the way it was stated, with somewhere between half a million to a million Israelites packing up their belongings and then wandering through the wilderness. He suggests that perhaps a group of Levites left and met up with other people in Eretz Yisrael and together they formed B’nei Yisrael. Friedman concluded by stating that, “My rabbi used to tell me as a child that even if we could prove that biblical events were not true, the Bible still contained great lessons. Over time,” Friedman asserts, “I’ve come to the opposite conclusion. History matters….I’m not arguing that everything in the Bible is factual. I may not believe, for example, that the world was created in seven days, or that humanity began with two naked people and a magic tree and a talking snake. But real evidence exists that the Exodus is historical, with text and archaeology mutually supporting one another.” This was brought up in a “got ya” sort of way. “Well rabbi, what do you think of that. Is our text true or false? If it didn’t happen why have the seder? Or do you agree with Friedman what it happened?”

Well, I agree with Friedman, but I also don’t at the same time. I do believe that history matters, but I do not believe that history has a veto vote on what matters and what doesn’t. I have been stopped in the hallways of this building or interrupted in class in regards to articles like this one more than any other topic. The accuracy of the Exodus and whether it happened is a topic of much focus not only amongst those within our faith but everyone. Around this time the History and Discovery Channels seem always to have a one or two-hour special where they send people out to try and uncover clues about the Exodus and whether it happened. Trying to prove or disprove the Exodus is a topic of great fascination for many, but not for me. Did it happen the way it was written? I don’t know, but I don’t care all that much about it. I am more intrigued by our memory of the Exodus, rather than the history of the Exodus.

Pesach is about memory, not history. We don’t know much about the history behind Pesach, but we have a story that we tell that has a powerful effect in shaping how we see ourselves and how we understand the world. As we just read in the Haggadah, Hayav Adam lirot atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mimitzraim, “Each person is obligated to see themselves as if they personally left Egypt.” We’re not supposed to just tell the story; we are to experience it and identify with it personally so that it becomes a part of how we live.

It’s no accident that the Torah repeats thirty-six times that we must be kind to the stranger in our midst because we “were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Our story should affect how we see ourselves and therefore, the way we treat others.

The Jewish people are often referred to as the “People of the Book.” I think it would be better to refer to us as the “People of the Story.” At this very moment, we are also writing our narrative and it is intertwined with a great narrative that began with Abraham and Sarah. We must tell our story, but we also must be part of the story as well. May we each find blessing and purpose in the stories we tell.