Dvar Torah prepared by Mike Garmise for Shabbat, 8th Sh’vat 5777, 4th February 2017
It is amazing to think that so much of our important history is packed into one Parsha – Parshat Bo. This is where it begins. The Rabbis said the Torah could have started with, “This month is the first month of the year for you, because this is where we begin to receive the mitzvoth about Pesach and tefillin and other rituals.” Everything that comes before is preamble – in Bereshit, for the creation of the world and the background of our ancestors, and in Shemot, for getting the Israelites ready to come out of Egypt and become a people.
We live in an age of doubt which demands proof: did the exodus actually occur, and if so, was it the way the Torah describes it.
To which there is a broad range of answers. At one end we hear: “Listen, I believe, and if the Torah says that this is what happened, even if it is not correct in every aspect, the general idea is true; besides, it’s the symbolism that is important. So leave me alone.” At other end we hear: “Listen, this is a problem. We add “in memory of the exodus from Egypt” to our prayers, Kiddush, and humanitarian mitzvoth because we were strangers before being taken out of Egypt. If this never happened, the whole structure of our religious life is threatened and may collapse.”
Professor Joshua Berman of Bar Ilan University tackled this question in a well-argued article in which he makes several important points. The first is, obviously, that there is no way to prove the story one way or the other. Aspects of what we read today certainly don’t make sense. For example, if the Israelites leaving Egypt numbered 600,000 males, that would make the total exodus of Israelites something like 2 million. How long would it take 2 million people to exit a country, and then cross the sea? And doesn’t the Torah say that we were one of the smallest nations? Two million is not so small.
But in many Biblical stories, numbers don’t always mean what they seem. For example, for years I have been trying to discover why every large number of days or years in the Torah, and elsewhere in the Bible, is 40. 40 days of flood, 40 days on Mount Sinai, 40 days of spying the land and then 40 years of wandering. Eliyahu had to hide 40 years. David ruled 40 years. Shlomo ruled 40 years. Why 40?
But that also means that the number may not be accurate. Thus, as Prof. Benjamin Sommer contends, the entire timeline of the exodus may be totally different from what we know. Perhaps the 40 years the Israelites spent in the desert were actually 100 years, or more, or less. Does it matter? Not really. It could have happened. As teachers using the Melton method to teach the Bible emphasize, there are different types of truths and different types of histories. Each is true in its own light (which sounds like alternative facts).
OK, the argument goes, then why doesn’t our story of the exodus appear in the annals of Egyptian history? Perhaps the Egyptians did not want to brag that they lost 600,000 or 2 million slaves. Passt nisht.
This leads to Berman’s second point for proving or disproving the authenticity of a text. Does it have any parallels in other texts or artifacts of the time to indicate a connection between a specific event and a place or time?
In answer, he brings an interesting fact. The expression “With a strong hand and outstretched arm” is used only in the context of the exodus and no other military operation or victory. It seems, he says, that this expression, “strong hand and outstretched arm”, was used extensively by the Egyptians to describe the strength and power of Pharaoh. This could indicate that the expression was appropriated by the Israelites, to show that our God bested Pharaoh and his gods at their own game.
Another parallel that Berman found was even more interesting. Although the design of Solomon’s Temple is remarkably similar in design to Phoenician temples of the time (and remember, the Phoenicians helped to build our temple too), the design of the Tabernacle built in the desert seemed to have no precedent.
Until a precedent was found. Pharaoh Ramses II (during which time our exodus occurred) scored his greatest victory against the Hittites, and records show the plan of his battle compound during the war. Berman found that it is remarkably similar to the plan of the Tabernacle in the desert. And the text that accompanies it is very similar to Shirat Hayam, which we will read next week.
This could indicate that the Israelites appropriated both the plan and the song, adapting the content, of course, to the specifics of our story. But this also means that the Israelites were in the area at the time, and were aware of this source and used it for their own purposes.
Do these “proofs” solve the riddle of whether there was an Exodus or whether the Israelites were actually in Egypt? Of course not. But then today, absolutes are passé. Today it’s “what if”s.
But there is enough evidence to conclude that the Israelites were actually in Egypt and actually did leave, in whatever numbers they had and in whatever time frame was required. And so when we read about the Israelites being taken out of Egypt, and on Pesach we repeat the story in prose and song (and food) to celebrate the event – we can truly say that the story is highly plausible.
And in a world in which the probable is not plausible and the unbelievable seems to be happening with increasing frequency, plausible is certainly a stable rock on which to rest our weary heads with a sigh of relief.