The Exodus Story Is an Outer Garment
“And here the son asks…”: The Importance of Asking the Right Questions
The mitzvah of recalling the story of the exodus is fulfilled in the form of questions and answers. Asking the right questions, therefore, is essential in order to access the significance of the story.
The question, “Did the exodus really happen?” is the wrong question because it misunderstands what type of book the Torah is. The Zohar will help us here.
Rabbi Shimon said: “Woe to the person who says that the Torah comes to give instructions and tell descriptive stories and simple tales. … Every word in the Torah reflects higher wisdom and higher secrets… The narratives of the Torah are only the outer clothing of the Torah. Whoever thinks that this outer clothing is, in fact, the Torah and there is nothing underneath the clothing is spiritually backward and has no portion in the World to Come… (Zohar, Bemidbar, Behaalotecha, p. 148b)
The Zohar is saying that the superficial meanings of the narratives are not the point of the Torah. To be sure, the Zohar is not taking a stand on the historicity of the Torah. In all likelihood the author of the Zohar never thought of the question, having lived long before the modern notion of history as recording factual events in a literal way became prevalent. In any case, the Zohar asserts in the strongest terms that the significance of the narrative does not lie in its superficial meaning but rather in the underlying spiritual message.
The Zohar’s general approach to the Torah is rooted in the view of the sages of the Talmud regarding the story of the exodus in particular. The verses which the sages chose as the basis of the Haggadah are from Devarim (Deuteronomy) 26: 5-9, where the Torah recounts the telling of the story, rather than the verses from Shemot (Exodus) which recount the story directly. This indicates that the essential significance of the story is not its historicity but rather how it is remembered, interpreted and communicated.
The Ba’al Shem Tov and the Apikores
The following anecdote about the Ba’al Shem Tov reinforces the approach that the significance of the story is in its interpretation.
It happened that someone came before the Baal Shem Tov who had studied science and philosophy and concluded, based upon his studies, that the splitting of the sea was a natural phenomenon. That being the case [i.e. that the splitting of the sea was not a miracle- HH] what was all the hullabaloo around this “miracle” that we believe in? Peddling this question the person sowed confusion everywhere he went.
The Baal Shem Tov gathered all the people in the town and said to them, “Since there are fools and apostates (apikorsim) that are concerned with this question [I will respond.] …God is the author of natural phenomena and since he engraved it into the nature of the sea to split for the children of Israel, this only increases the miracle since the very nature of the sea was created in the beginning in anticipation of the needs of Israel…” (Ba’al Shem Tov, Shemot, Beshalach 7).
Significantly, the Baal Shem Tov does not deny the possibility that the splitting of the sea was a natural occurrence. What renders the apikores an apikores is not that assertion, but the interpretation of the natural phenomenon as being bereft of religious meaning.
The preoccupation with the historicity of the Torah in general and the exodus in particular, as understandable as it may be, is detrimental to our spiritual well-being because it distracts us from the eternal significance of the story.
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March 26, 2015
September 10, 2020
Rabbi Herzl Hefter is the Rosh Beit Midrash Har’el, in Jerusalem, an advanced Halacha program open to men and women. Rabbi Hefter has taught the Kollel fellows at Yeshivat Hamivtar, the Gruss Kollel of Yeshiva University and served as the head of the Bruria Scholars Program at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He is a graduate of Yeshiva University and did his semicha at Yeshiva Har Etzion. He was recently a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of Jerusalem.
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