Talk about fake news. Had President Trump lived in ancient times, what would he have made of rumors flying about that almost 2 million Israelite slaves had up and left Egypt? Not only that, but when the Pharaoh’s elite chariot drivers went chasing after them, the waters opened long enough for the slaves to pass through, but then closed and drowned all the Egyptians. Weird.
To be sure, the president would not have been the first to question the story of the runaway slaves. Through the ages, archaeologists have argued that there is no factual basis to the account. No proof has been found that there ever were Israelites in Egypt, let alone slaves who escaped from an evil pharaoh. Nor is there scientific evidence that a large group of people wandered through the Sinai Peninsula for 40 years, or any years. As for the 10 plagues, some describe them as catastrophic events of nature that happened over a long period of time; others simply write them off as magical elements in a mythological tale.
Yet, here we are in the midst of overhauling our homes as we prepare to commemorate exactly those events: the bitter lives of the slaves in Egypt, the 10 plagues that struck the Pharaoh and his people, the exodus of the Israelites, their salvation as they crossed the Red Sea and their wanderings in the desert before they received the Torah. Is it all a fake?
To begin with, some scholars have suggested that, in fact, there was a small group of Semitic people, probably Levites, who lived in Egypt and left it — perhaps after being badly treated — and joined a large Israelite community already settled in Canaan. With time, the compelling Levite story of its slavery and exodus from Egypt spread to the larger group, which adopted it as its own. Be that as it may, however, it’s important to note that every nation has a founding story buried deep in history that both reflects and shapes its culture. The Italians tell the tale of Remus and Romulus, twins abandoned at birth and suckled by a she-wolf. Supposedly the sons of the god Mars or the semi-god Hercules, their story glorifies the founders of Rome. The Swiss have the legend of William Tell, the great archer who shot an apple off his son’s head and went on to free Switzerland from Austrian rule. Here in America we venerate the Pilgrims as this nation’s founders and celebrate the Puritans and their practices as the source of our national values even though the vast majority of Americans do not descend from those early settlers.
For us as Jews, the exodus from Egypt is our founding story, our national narrative, whatever its precise historical origins. And it differs significantly from the stories of other peoples. Although it has its heroes, they are not the main subject of the saga: Moses’ name appears only once in the Passover Haggadah, and then only in passing. The hero of the Exodus epic is God, the subject is the increasing closeness of the Israelites to their deity and the main event is the covenant that takes place between the two. With that covenant the Jews become a people guided by rules and laws, and God promises to cherish and watch over them. Our founding story is not designed to exalt us as a nation as other nations’ stories do, but to instill in us a sense of responsibility in our relations to God, to each other and to other people, especially the poor and downtrodden.
The remarkable thing about our story, as the late Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi pointed out in his classic book “Zakhor,” is that while it appears to take place within history, it actually transcends history. The covenant concluded by the Israelites at Mount Sinai was not a one-time occurrence. Again and again we are told to “remember” what happened in Egypt and at Sinai, and through memory to experience the happenings as if we had been there. The Haggadah recounts a brief history of Israel taken from the book of Deuteronomy, beginning with the words, “A wandering Aramean was my father.” It describes how the Egyptians “oppressed us” and how the Lord “heard our voice” and ultimately “brought us out of Egypt.” “My,” “us,” “our”: in every generation our nation’s story becomes our own; we never cease to participate in it.
The beginnings of our history may be shrouded in mystery. But fake history? No. The underlying truth of our narrative and its meaning for Jews are more real than any historical fact can ever be.
Francine Klagsbrun’s latest book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” Her new biography of Golda Meir will be published in October.