The word Exodus is a powerful one.
When we hear it, some of us may think of the boat called the Exodus that sailed in July of 1947 with over 4,500 Jews from France toward the Holy Land. The British detained the ship in Haifa and sent everyone back to Europe.
When we hear it, others of us might think of Exodus, the legendary Bob Marley album and song that were released 40 years ago.
When we hear it, it is likely most of us think of the Israelites in Egypt who leave with God’s help to start a new life first in the wilderness and then later in Canaan, the Holy Land.
This part of Sefer Shemot, the Book of Exodus, the part that describes these events, occupies less than half of the entire Book, 15 chapters, but these chapters are so central to who we are, to how we think of our history, our values, our mission, and our future.
Scholar Richard Eliot Friedman, in his new book on the subject, proposes that there was a historical Exodus – I haven’t finished reading it yet, so I cannot share the details, but he does argue that Jews left Egypt, perhaps not exactly the way described in the Torah but still, there was an Exodus.
He argues it is important and meaningful to know that there is historical validity to an Exodus story, but I would argue the opposite. It is interesting and exciting to find information, archaeological and otherwise, that corroborates the Bible, its stories and characters.
But such discoveries do not, and cannot, replace the faith we put in the way stories like the Exodus shape us regardless of whether there is no fact to them, a kernel of fact, or whether the Exodus events happened exactly as narrated.
Truth emet is the Hebrew word for it, truth is not descriptive, it’s prescriptive. Encyclopedia Judaica explains truth is an ethical idea of what ‘ought to be’.
And so we ought to think of ourselves as going free from Egypt whether our ancestors actually did, or not.
This is where Professor Neil Gillman, may his memory be a blessing, was so influential. He re-taught us the meaning of the word ‘myth’. A myth is not a fairy tale, but a way of organizing and telling a meaningful story about who we are, what we believe, what we do and why.
Now, a counter-argument here is worth bringing forward. Clearly, there are many in our world whose myths lead to destructive decisions and behavior. Hamas and ISIS terrorists have myths that inform their beliefs and actions. Repressive governments, dictators, and corrupt political systems also benefit from narratives they create to legitimize their existence and behaviors.
The power of the Exodus story for us is that it pushes us, pushes humanity, in a direction of dignity and power, but not power over, rather power to, power and inspiration to liberate others, to be as humble as Moses, to recognize that life is a holy and precious gift, to value and cherish freedom as a blessing beyond any material good.
We will find these lessons in our Torah reading today, as we see Moses approach the sneh, the shrub that is burning without being consumed.
The humble desert shrub in front of Mount Sinai burns with God’s Presence because it’s important for us to know that God is present everywhere, not only in exalted, gold-trimmed palaces and Temples.
Mount Sinai itself is not the highest or grandest mountain in the range. We don’t even know which one is the so-called ‘real’ Sinai.
The Zohar teaches us that we, the people of Israel, are similar to the shrub – the fires burn all around us, fires of oppression, prejudice, and conflict surround us but we ourselves are, as it were, come out somehow in the end as a people with new resolve.
It’s also important for us to remember, as it says in the Passover Haggadah, that we are still leaving Egypt. The Exodus is not a one time phenomenon of history but an ongoing effort. Egypt represents all the things that tie us down, hold us back, and burden us, and we recognize this year, as we’ve turned into the New Year, that Israel is still under threat, anti-Semitism has not disappeared, in fact, in some ways has grown stronger, and there are still many in our world waiting for their Exodus, from slavery, from human trafficking, from sexual harassment, from hunger and homelessness and more.
The historicity, the possible historical factual Exodus, is irrelevant to our responsibility to these people. For them, slavery, or overwhelming life circumstances and their aftermath, is still very real and freedom still a dream.
May our reading from Sefer Shemot, the Book of Exodus, help us rededicate our thoughts energies toward empowering and freeing others so that they may experience the joy and renewal of going me’avdut le’cherut, from slavery to freedom, sadness to joyfulness, and restriction to forward movement and progress toward dignity.