Finding Redemption in the Passover Story
Creating Nostalgic Memories
In my office and also on my refrigerator at home, I have the same photo. My son and I are holding our flippers, snorkels, and goggles as we emerge from the waters of Ras Mohamed, at the very southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. I love the picture because the wet-suit I rented that day makes me look slim and athletic. I love the memory because it was a very good day with my family. But I cherish the experience I had as a Jew, because there we are emerging from the Red Sea.
If I can appear slim and athletic in my mind’s eye, how much the more so can I manufacture a mythic memory of my son and me, men of the tribe of Levi, there in the Sinai, just having crossed the Red Sea on our journey from Egypt. Maybe snorkeling isn’t exactly dry land, and maybe the awe inspiring corals of Ras Mohamed are “not walls of water to our right and our left,” but even when I was there in the Gulf of Suez, my own reenactment made me feel that I, too, had braved the sea with my Israelite ancestors. The evidence is right there on my fridge, next to the kids’ graduation photos.
A Critical Appraisal of the Exodus Narrative
Evidence is the antithesis of mythic memory – so I am conscious that the photo and my nostalgia for the “crossing of the Red Sea” may be at odds with one another. In truth, I feel the same way at the Seder table when we commemorate our redemption from bondage, the Exodus from Egypt.
Back in the late 1990’s I consulted for DreamWorks for their animated feature, “Prince of Egypt,” so I can speak from experience about the actual manufacture of mythic memory. But when it comes to Jewish ritual, to fulfilling the commandments, to study of the Torah, I am acutely sensitive that I am not consulting, nor is the text a cartoon. And yet, a critical appraisal of the Exodus narrative leaves us remarkably short on evidence, with only walls of mythic memory encompassing us “to our right and our left.”
The first scholarly problem is the absence of mention of the Jews enslaved in Egypt throughout the Egyptian historical record. There is also a lack of data that might serve to verify our leaving Egypt. All those hieroglyphics, but no Israelites. And did we mention that the Egyptians have no record whatsoever of the ten plagues that devastated them?
Second, and perplexing even to the rabbis of old, is the sheer mathematics of the Exodus narrative. If the number of males who left Egypt at Passover was 600,000; we must also add women and children to the mix. True, not every Jewish man had a wife, but still: wives, children, the hangers-on who left along with the Israelites; all add up so that in the Mekilta d’Rabbi Ishmael the rabbis variously estimate the grand total ranging from 1,200,000 to as much as 3,600,000. While the Midrash can imagine that God’s Cloud of Glory acted like the Army Engineer Corps steamrolling a path for the Israelites through the wilderness, the logistics are the stuff of an historian’s nightmares. No amount of shock and awe can account for the numerical details of the narrative.
Why Slavery of all Things?
And yet, I whisper quietly in my soul, we moved. Despite all evidence to the contrary from the numbers, and despite no evidence to buttress the biblical account, we celebrate Passover. We change the dishes, invite the guests, drink the wine, eat the matzah. “We were slaves unto Pharaoh in Egypt. Then God took us forth from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.” What does it mean that this is the story we tell about our ancestors and ourselves? What does it mean when critical analysis and the historic record belie the most central narrative of Jews as a people? If the events described did not actually occur, if indeed this is but building mythic memory in the absence of evidence, why this narrative and not another? Indeed, how is this night different from all other nights?
We could have said we were the offspring of the Pharaohs; that we too deserved a place among the Egyptian high and mighty in the Valley of Kings. Instead, we claim that we were strangers there. We might have suggested that our ancestors were mighty warriors who defeated Pharaoh in battle with our prowess. We could have opted for the wisdom of the Greek philosophers, the wealth of Croesus, the nobility of King Arthur, but instead we sing how we were slaves. Really? Slaves?
There is much to be said for our emphasis that victory was not ours, but God’s. “Not by might, nor by strength, but by the spirit of God.” Okay, that seems like a noble idea. We owe God our gratitude for every breath we take. But slaves? We are talking about generations of slavery! –We’re talking centuries, 210 or 400 years depending on how we read the differing biblical traditions (either counting from Jacob’s descent into Egypt until the Exodus or the biblical prophecy in Genesis 15:13). Why do we say we were slaves? Strangers in the land of Egypt?
Here is the payoff of the myth making. This is why we Jews tell the story of our lowly origins despite the historical record or lack thereof. We are reminded we were slaves, strangers in the land of Egypt, so that we might not oppress the stranger. The Talmud (b. Baba Metsia 59b) counts that we are commanded not to oppress the stranger no fewer than thirty-six times in the Torah. God commands us to be vigilant. Do not oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Do not be xenophobic, for you once were the outsider. Welcome the immigrant for you were once immigrants, oppressed by the whip.
I think we have done history one better. If, indeed, we have created a narrative, it is one that teaches us as a people to be generous (as God is generous), to be compassionate (as God is compassionate), to care for the downtrodden (as God cared for us in Egypt). Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in need, come celebrate the myth of our redemption, that we may again be redeemed.
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April 8, 2014
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Prof. Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky serves as Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he directs the Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue. He also serves as Louis Stein director of the Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies there. His most recent book is Sage Tales: Wisdom and Wonder from the Rabbis of the Talmud.
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