Is Exodus a Myth? Not Exactly….

This last Shabbat, we read Vaera, the parsha in which the first of the plagues unfolds. Nothing can convince Pharoah to let the Israelites go. Nothing can alter his understanding of who he is and the power he wields.

Pharaoh repeatedly hardens his heart. Three different words are used in the story for the action on and in Pharaoh’s heart: Pharaoh “hardens,” “strengthens,” makes his heart “heavy.” Pharaoh is stubborn, unfeeling, arrogantly inflexible.

In such a time as this, the Exodus story becomes a noisy one indeed, a narrative that sounds all the alarms. The tale we read in Torah right now tells the sordid story we are living at this moment — a story of plague and death, a story of a corrupt and grasping ruler and the people who follow him, a story of a people exhausted, worn, oppressed.

Is Exodus really a myth, after all?

After the destruction and violence we witnessed last January 6, we know that Exodus is no myth. “Camp Auschwitz” was written on the t-shirt of one of the insurrectionists; 6MWNE, which stands for “six million was not enough,” was printed on others. We, the descendants of those Israelites, have been enslaved in recent memory yet again in Nazi camps; we have lived through and died of plagues both natural and man-made. Typhus killed uncounted Jews in the camps; gas killed millions.

Torah is a mirror. Look into it, and you will see your neighbors, your brethren, your rulers. You will see all the glories and ills humanity is capable of. All that we do now, we know already in its pages. We are creating variations on themes we have before us in every parsha we read.

This year, there was a verse that emerged more powerfully than any other for me.

The Holy One has just made a slew of promises. “I will free you,” God says. “I will deliver you… I will redeem you… I will take you to be my people.” These four commitments, vows of redemption, are the source for the four cups of wine we use at our Pesach Seder. We read these promises each and every year.

But in the Torah, when Moses tells the people what the Holy One has said, the text tells us, “they would not listen (v’lo sham-u) to Moses; their spirits were crushed by cruel bondage” (6:9).

They would not listen, they did not listen — this is how v’lo sham-u is typically translated. Perhaps they could not listen.

Mikotzer ruach, the text continues. The noun, kotzer, might mean ‘short,’ and literally so. And it could also mean ‘impatience,’ or ‘despondency.’ One might translate this as so many do: The Israelites’ spirits were crushed, even stunted: made short and small.

Ruach can also evoke ‘breath.’ Perhaps it was their very breath that was cut short. The Israelites gasped for breath, and why? The text tells us. U’meyavodah kasha, because of their enslavement.

Because they had no freedom, they could have no breath. And because they could not breathe, they could not hear, either. Who among us, gasping for breath, can hear anything but our own struggle to get air into our lungs, to hear, terrified, our own rasping efforts to live?

Almost two million people on our planet have died in this past year, trying to breathe. More will die, and we, in America, will lead the world in deaths, watching as more struggle, and more die.

It was Martin Luther King’s birthday Friday. We mark a day in his honor a few days later. I often wonder how his people could hear him, how they could follow him, enslaved and cruelly used for hundreds of years, imprisoned and lynched, terrorized, redlined, denied the right to vote, denied ease and breath.

No, Exodus is no myth.

Are we, too, suffering from shortness of breath? How do we make our way out of this narrow space? Can we even imagine what it would mean, in our time, to dance our freedom from plague, from oppression, from the cruelty of corrupt and power-hungry leaders?

Despite everything, despite our knowledge and our fears, I would like to have hope. I have never believed that the Holy One will fix things for us. I do believe that God sends us all that we need to do things for ourselves. Feel divine compassion and love, and you are strengthened; you breathe more easily. And then take on the task of our time as Moses and Miriam did in theirs. We must work to free ourselves and deliver and redeem each other.

And then, perhaps, like the ancient Israelites, we will dance our joy.


Not History. Still Truth.

dancing_figuresI know it didn’t happen that way. It may not have happened at all.

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.


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