Instead of a grand Exodus, there may have been a release of Semitic slaves from Egypt – that, after all, is attested in Egyptian annals. Or a small group of slaves may have escaped the horrors of forced labor.
We have no proof that Moses existed, that any larg(ish) number of Israelites won their freedom or made their way through the wilderness. There is no archeological record to prove that a mass number of people trekked through the landscape between Egypt and Canaan.
Neither is there any historical corroboration for the actual existence of Joseph. Or Abraham, Isaac, and the rest of our patriarchs and matriarchs.
These stories are literature. They are myth. They are folktales. Though they are certainly attached to the experience and time of their composition, they are not history.
This fact has never prevented them from telling us truths.
We are, this week, standing at the juncture between the conclusion of Bereishit and the first parsha of Sh’mot. Waiting for the ancient freedom ride to begin, I have been preoccupied with a particular vision. It seems as real to me as the desk I write at, the gum tree branches against the gray sky outside my window, the sound of Beowulf, our cat, snoring in the kitchen.
I see the first aron. I see the second aron.
The first is the Ark of the Covenant which contains the tablets of the law – both the shattered version and the whole one. The first was inscribed by YHVH (Ex. 31:18) and destroyed by Moses. The second was created and carved by Moses, but inscribed by divine and patient agency (Ex. 34:1).
The second aron is the one that contains Joseph’s bones – aron also designates a coffin.
An ark. A coffin.
The mixed multitude that trembled with fear, that danced in rejoicing, the mixed multitude that will experience a lifetime of vicissitudes in the wilderness, that people carries with them both memory and hope, both death and the law that sustains life.
The act of ritual remembrance has been one of the most powerful ways by which we have maintained our multifaceted, diverse, and ever-changing sense of what it means to be Jewish. We know who we are when we can identify who we come from. This is fact, even when our ancestors are mythical creations, the stuff of stories told around campfires under ancient skies and brilliant stars. They are real to us – or can be. Their flaws are our flaws; their struggles are heartbreakingly familiar.
What child with brothers and (or) sisters does not worry that her mother favors a sibling? So, too, did Esau suspect Rebecca, and not without reason. How many women have found themselves trying to do everything right, only to be pushed aside, misused, even abused? Both Tamars of Tanakh will be, though Judah’s daughter-in-law will win the day in the end. David’s own daughter will be disgraced and humiliated by a half-brother who mercilessly ignores her pleas and rapes her. Afterwards, like so many women of our own time, she will be told to hush, to keep silent, to say nothing.
Memory binds us. And the law? Most Jews of our time hardly live by it. Yet it still sustains us, still teaches us, still asks us to consider: What is ethical speech? What is thoughtful, kind behavior? Do we not know this in our bones (did Joseph?): Treat the stranger kindly and love your neighbors.
Perhaps there are few Jews who study the commentary Hillel directed us to explore. But most Jews know something of its existence. Our law can be our hope to be better human beings as well as better Jews.
I see those people (who never existed?) before me. I see them carry that aron, the one holding our ignorance and failure in the form of shattered shards of stone, but holding the whole ones, too, the Second Chance.
I see them carrying the other aron, the coffin holding memories of an earlier time, of a patriarch and our family of origins, of a man who acted both cruelly and mercifully.
This Shabbat, we begin the story of Exodus. We will read of terror and darkness, of death and daytime horrors. We will read of freedom and joy, too. Memory and law, knowing where we came from and who we must be: This is my vision of those two arons.
Perhaps it is not history. But it is true.