The God of the Exodus
January 12, 2018
I spent an hour and a half this week watching a documentary made by an American film maker who investigated the truth of the Exodus. He interviewed several Egyptologists and Biblical scholars who attempt to verify that the Jewish people’s Exodus from Egypt is literally true, that it happened much as described in the Torah. Of course, the film maker began with a certain predisposition. He is a believing Christian whose faith depends on the factual basis of the Exodus and consequently, the Jesus story. The documentary makes quite clear that these scholars’ viewpoint is not shared by the great majority of serious Egyptologists, historians, and archaeologists. There is no extra-Biblical evidence for the historicity of the Exodus as told in the Torah. Of course, we do know from the Merneptah stele, a Pharaoh who lived from 1213-1203 BCE, that Israel existed as a distinct entity, for Merneptah claimed to have destroyed us during a campaign in Canaan. That is the first extra-Biblical mention of the Jewish people and says nothing about the Exodus experience.
I think that searching for the reality of the Exodus is like searching for the real Noah’s ark. While there is certainly a historical kernel of truth to both stories, the historicity or lack thereof, is not the reason why we read and value them. We treasure them precisely because they are stories that contain many truths, truths with a capital “T” about our lives and our relationship with God. Allow me to explain.
The Exodus is the foundational story of the Jewish people. God freed us from Egypt and brought us to the promised land of Israel. In this week’s parashah, Va’era (Exodus 6:2-3), God introduces Himself to Moses. God says, “I am YHVH. I appeared to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov as El Shaddai but I did not make Myself known to them by the name YHVH. Last week, we learned that God’s name, YHVH, is a verb of being. God told Moses that His name was “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh,” translated as “I will be that which I will be.” God is a constant process of becoming, a name which connotes possibility and potential. Two verses later, God tells Moses to speak to the Israelites in His name, saying: I am the Lord. I will take you out (vehotzeti) from under the burdens of Egypt and I will rescue your (vehitzalti) from their bondage. I will redeem you (vehigalti)…and I will take you(velakachti) to be My people and I will be your God. God outlines here the four stages of liberation which we note during our Pesach Seder with four cups of wine. How can we understand these stages of liberation? “To be taken out could refer to physically being removed-or removing oneself- from an oppressive situation. To be delivered may refer to a personal process of dealing with internalized oppression. We need to not only physically remove ourselves from the oppressive situation but to remove the internal obstacles that keep us enslaved. Liberation, however, cannot remain on the level of the individual. Even if we are successful in achieving personal freedom, whether physical or psychological, the oppressive situation remains. Redemption then refers to a larger process of working with others to address the cause of oppression and to uproot the factors that constitute degradation…And I will take you to be my people points towards the ultimate goal of our personal and communal freedom”[i]– to serve God in the continuous process of the liberation of humanity and the ongoing process of perfecting creation. It is not enough to free ourselves. We are part and parcel of the ongoing drive towards the Messianic age.
The text, however, does not end with the four promises of liberation. There is a fifth promise (Exodus 6:6-8), when God says “I will bring you (veheveiti) into the land. What I find to be quite interesting is that this fifth promise is not included in the Passover Haggadah. It is as if God did not say this to us in the Book of Exodus. So, the question is why did the sages who compiled the Haggadah leave this out of the Seder? What were they trying to tell us?
I think the rabbis of the late first and second centuries where telling us that the journey, the Exodus itself, is just as important as the destination, the land of Israel. They are telling us “that the journey is intrinsically holy. Think for a moment about Judaism’s three pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, which commemorates the Exodus from Egypt, Shavuot, commemorates the revelation at Mt. Sinai and Sukkot. Sukkot does not commemorate any life shattering events. It merely remembers and re-enacts the long journey of the Israelites through the wilderness. Of all these three festivals, which is the most joyous? Sukkot is the only one called “Zeman Simchateinu,” the time of our rejoicing. The happiest days in Judaism are the days devoted to remembering and re-experiencing the journey.”[ii] So this is an important Truth we learn from text- that the journey is just as important as its end.
Our Jewish identity does not depend on the historicity of the Exodus. While certainly there is a kernel of truth to the story, for us that is not the ultimate point. The story teaches that God works in and through history and in and through us to bring redemption to humanity. We also learn that the journey, which is sometimes painful and now and again joyous, is just as important as the destination.
Amen and Shabbat shalom
[i] Rabbi Tova Spitzer, Ten Minutes of Torah, January 20, 2004.
[ii] Mechon Hadar, Parashat Hashavuah, 2016.