Rabbi Mitch's Weekly Teachings

Weekly Teaching

January 23, 2015

 

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo, Exodus 10:1–13:16, continues the retelling of our Exodus story and commands our continued annual observance of Passover.

A few years ago my teacher, Rabbi David Wolpe, stirred up international controversy when he questioned on his pulpit, right before Passover, the historicity of the Exodus story. Rabbi Wolpe’s assertion was that since archaeologists have not been able to provide evidence that the Exodus occurred, we must consider the possibility that our Torah narrative must be viewed through the lens of Jewish mythology.

I personally was never bothered by my teacher’s assertion, although I did question the choice of time and forum. Torah has been for me the teaching of moral truths; the foundation for our ethical monotheistic belief system. While history certainly matters, so does literary history. The Story of Exodus makes us who we are, regardless of the facts that we may or may not be able to prove.

My personal position on this, however, is challenged by my wife. Roseanne believes that we shouldn’t be dismissive of the actual historicity of the Bible and she correctly asserts that every year archaeologists make new discoveries that demonstrate historical aspects of the Bible as accurate.

In this spirit, she was very interested for us to view this past week the movie Patterns of Evidence: The Exodus. This documentary examines the patterns of evidence and lets the viewer consider not just the 10 plagues and the subsequent Exodus, but all the other surrounding events. Patterns of Evidence notes that secular scholarship admits to not having a lot of the "facts".

The 20th century Egyptologist, Sir Alan Gardiner, wrote in his personal notebook: "It must never be forgotten that we are dealing with a civilization thousands of years old and one of which only tiny remnants have survived. What is proudly advertised as Egyptian history is merely a collection of rags and tatters."

Egyptologists work to understand the story they tell. Other ancient cultures are made to fit into the perceived Egyptian timeline and "facts". Because Egyptian historical knowledge is problematic; the archaeological doubts about a historical Exodus are pervasive. Archaeologists look for evidence of Israelite presence in Egypt in the city of Ramses because the Bible tells us:

Joseph’s family settled in the land of Ramses (Genesis 47:11)

The slaves built the cities Pithom and Ramses (Exodus 1:11)

The children of Israel departed from Ramses (Numbers 33:3)

The film notes, however, that the region that the Torah refers to as the "land of Ramses" refers to events that occurred long before the reign of Ramses the Great. The name Ramses means "the Egyptian god Ra gave birth to him"; a common name that was given to honor many of the pharaohs well before the reign of Ramses the Great was specifically associated with a general location of land.

In other words, archaeologists might not be looking in the right place or for the right time. "Absence of proof doesn’t provide proof." My comfort zone isn’t disturbed by archaeological works; I often find it amusing how archaeologists have to scramble for new theories after making new discoveries.

My own comfort is more grounded in the literature itself. There are many similarities between Israelite literature and other ancient Near Eastern literature. The Egyptian "Tale of Sinuhe" is an example of multiple literary similarities between narratives about both Joseph and Moses’ lives, and Sinuhe’s life.

Which story has who’s origin? We don’t know, but it’s interesting that there is a parallel origin to a narrative; is it a historical origin? Literary similarities between the Bible and other ancient stories make us pause. We don’t have a time machine to find out literal truth. We possess our stories; the stories that make us who we are. Factual biblical truths are to a great extent, unknown.

The origin to our biblical story, still not definitively known, may or may not have historically occurred, yet the "myth" grew from this point of origin. What becomes important is to take ownership for the text within our own lives. "I was a slave in Egypt" is the mitzvah to eternally recall our story. We Jews never separate ourselves from our story. 100% history? 50%? 10%? It’s all debatable. It’s a debate worthy of our time.

100% our story; the story that makes us the Jewish people; non-debatable.

This is a fact that always keeps me anchored within my fidelity to God, Torah and the Jewish People

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Mitch

 

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