Do we really know what happened when the ancient Israelites left Egypt?
We don’t, and it’s a good thing we don’t, for if we did, we likely would not be here to remember this formative event of the Jewish people.
What we do not know are the answers to questions that historians would ask about the Exodus, if they could. (We’ll look at some of these questions below.) Instead, what we do know is the purpose of the Exodus, not what happened, but why.
We know that contemporary Jewry is integrally connected to the ancient event. We know that G-d redeemed us from Egypt and taught us the value of human freedom. We know how our ancestors responded to this unique Divine intervention in human development, sometimes with gratitude and faith, sometimes without. Either way, we view the Exodus through the frame of purpose, of why.
The Exodus has given the Jewish people since antiquity a national, ritual and theological purpose. Through the Passover rituals, we remember our formation as a nation and G-d’s caring. The Exodus is the ultimate Jewish national paradigm. It has kept us alive during the darkest periods of our history, even when the paradigm seemed to face refutation.
All this is another way of saying that we do not know much about the Exodus itself, at least as the writers of history would look at it. If historians of today were to examine the Exodus, they would ask questions to which there would be no uniform answers.
The idea that “history” will someday clarify current events is naive.
Historians differ even about major events whose facts are clear. Historians do not merely chronicle events, but ask what factors drove these events. On such matters, historians will never agree.
When an American president pleads for the “judgment of history” about one of his momentous and controversial decisions, it is virtually always a plea in vain; not to mention, it is evidence that the president has never seriously studied history.
If the Jewish people had to rely on historians to tell us about the Exodus itself, we could easily lose sight of its overwhelming purpose.
Historians of the Exodus would ask questions of great interest to historians, but with little or no power to explain the eternal destiny of the Jewish people. Historians would ask, for example:
Did class, gender or caste (priestly and Levite vs. lay) play a role in the willingness of the ancient Israelites to rebel against their Egyptian rulers, or in the willingness of the Egyptian rulers to oppress the Israelites? On both the Israelite and the Egyptian sides, were there crossovers — dissident Egyptians who aided Israelites, or dissident Israelites who conspired against Moses’ leadership in Egypt? If so, what were the origins of dissidence in class, ideology or education? In other words, were there deep divisions over slavery, or was it universally accepted?
The Exodus was an iconic turning point — the iconic turning point — in the development of the Jewish people, but was this also true of Egyptian society? While the Exodus transformed the ancient Israelites, was it merely a bump in ancient Egyptian history?
Did similar rebellions occur in other ancient Middle Eastern societies at the same time as the Exodus that influenced, or were influenced by, the Exodus?
Was leadership within Israelite society at the time of the Exodus correlated with educational achievement? Was there, in fact, any opportunity for educational advancement in the ancient Israelite slave society? Were all the slaves illiterate? If so, how did the remembrance of ancient Biblical traditions and patriarchal narratives enable the ancient Israelites to follow Moses? Or, were these traditions and narratives mostly lost? If so, what motivated the slaves to follow Moses?
When the Israelites initially expressed great antagonism toward Moses, was this subject to a differential analysis along class, gender, caste or other lines?
If such questions appear jarring, they should. They reflect the perspective of a Western academic culture on the Exodus that is radically different from the Biblical perspective, and is not inherent to the Biblical purpose.
Even so, such questions do illuminate the Exodus by identifying the critical difference between looking at Passover as history, that is, as historians look at events; and between understanding Passover’s purpose — religious, ritual, national and inspirational.
For historians, a critical event is never settled. While Jews are urged to plumb the depths of meaning in Passover without end, the purpose of Passover in its broad outline is settled.
That is why we Jews are still here, thousands of years later, still fighting for freedom, still marveling over the story, still identifying as a people — still remembering and reliving the Exodus from Egypt.
Next year in Jerusalem!
Rabbi Hillel Goldberg may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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