April 11, 2012: Seventh Day Pesah
Is the Exodus story real? I get asked that question a lot. People want to know what I believe; did the Red Sea really part? Were there really 10 plagues? Were these phenomena miracles? Or can they be explained in natural terms?
For instance, there’s the low tide/high tide explanation. Darkness could have been a total eclipse of the sun. Locust plagues are, indeed, an occasional natural occurrence.
Or maybe it’s all just myth – either completely made up, or a creative method of telling the story about actual events, but events very different in character from how they’re told. Maybe, as many historians suggest, it wasn’t a sudden, comprehensive Exodus; maybe it was a gradual migration – not a very exciting or memorable way to relate the movement of a people from one place to another.
I don’t know. I wasn’t there. I haven’t found it on YouTube. It’s a matter of faith. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not one of those who says it’s bad – not true Judaism – if you don’t believe it’s all literal. That’s a more Christian approach, if you ask me – proper faith, above proper behavior.
What really happened? Really – who cares? What does it matter? Beyond dividing people, why even care what someone gives as an answer? Don’t get me wrong; I love the question. I’m glad people ask. It means they’re listening, they’re in the game. They haven’t left the fold. By all means, ask those questions.
But don’t judge, based on the answer you hear. My colleague, David Wolpe, the renowned rabbi in LA, caused quite a stir a few years back, when he said publicly that he doubted the actual veracity of the Exodus story, as told in the Bible. That’s what you get, David, for being honest.
Well, I’ll be honest. I’m with David. I don’t know, and I’ll say further: I don’t care. It doesn’t matter what really happened. What matters, what really matters is where I find myself in the story. Have I been in, and left, Egypt? Maybe, in a way, I’m still there? What has my journey out – whether gradual or sudden – entailed? Have there been, can I identify, certain discrete and significant steps along the way? Was there even was a “big moment,” like the parting of the Red Sea, where I wasn’t sure I was going to make it, where victory was snatched, at the last moment, from the jaws of defeat?
While you’re asking yourself those questions about your own journey, I’ll give you an example of what I’m talking about, by telling you about one of mine. Maybe you’ve heard this before.
Growing up, Judaism had always been strange to me. I never really got it. Maybe I wasn’t ever properly introduced. Maybe I was too weak against social pressures saying it wasn’t cool. I don’t know. Either way, I’d become so distant by my sophomore year at KU, that I was the only Jew living in a fraternity house with 70 gentiles. In a way it was kind of cool; we (my brothers and I) all humored it – when I was elected chapter chaplain, for example, one of the brother quipped, “is this affirmative action?” Eventually, though, something strange began to happen: I began to feel more Jewish. By Passover, I’d decided to try something new: I engage in an actual Jewish ritual – I’d refrain from eating bread.
Which brings me to one of those moments of taking step out of Egypt. It was Pesah. I made the journey home to Prairie Village – not nearly as cut and dried, before K-10 – for seder, and I returned to Lawrence next day. That evening, as every evening at the Sigma Nu house, we 70 brothers lined up outside the dining room to go through the chow line and get our trays of food. The frat was mostly crazy times, but every night we formally “dined” – until our house mom got her food and sat down, after which someone would say grace, we’d wait to commence eating.
That night was like all other nights. I went through line, got my sandwich and trimmings, walked to my spot at my usual table and sat down. I waited for Grace. It was time to eat, it was Pesah, and I was ready to embrace my new ritual. So I picked up my sandwich and removed the bread – and just ate the ham.
It was a step out of Egypt. More steps would come soon – I’d spend the next academic year in Jerusalem at Hebrew University, where I would begin keeping Shabbat and kosher. And the rest, as they say, is history. A year ago, I marked 25 years in the rabbinate. Many steps led me there, but none more important than that first one. The journey continues. I eagerly await more steps to come.
On Pesah our people celebrate our story: mey’avdut l’herut – from slavery to freedom, mi’ya’gon l’simha – from sadness to joy. From Egypt to the Promised Land. On Pesah each one of our people, every one of us, celebrates our personal story, our life’s journey, our personal journey of spirit.
What’s your story? What was your Egypt? When did you leave? How did you make it out? What have been your memorable and vital steps? Where will your future steps lead?
Questions to ask ourselves in this season of asking questions. Hag kasher v’sameah – a happy and very Jewish Passover!