Parashat Va-era – Exodus from Egypt: Fact or Fiction?
by Rabbi Ira Korinow
Last week when we began reading the Book of Sh’mot, the Book of Exodus, we read of Moses’s birth and God’s choosing him to free the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. This week in Parashat Va-era we read of the first seven of the ten plagues brought upon Egypt. The stage is set for the saga of Y’tzi-at Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt. This story has generated several epic Hollywood films and is unquestionably our preeminent narrative marking the birth of the Jewish nation. It is mentioned each day in our liturgy and is the raison d’être of our Jewish existence.
When the Etz Hayim Humash was published in 2001 by the Rabbinical Assembly, the umbrella organization of Conservative rabbis, it was strenuously criticized around the world for suggesting that the Exodus may never have occurred. Professor Lee Levine, a Conservative rabbi and professor in the Department of History and the Institute of Archeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, wrote that there was no archeological evidence of Jews having been in Egypt or the Sinai and what little evidence does exist in Egyptian writings is negligible and indirect (see Etz Hayim Humash, page 1341). Imagine… the quintessential story of the Exodus from Egypt might never have occurred!
Since then biblical scholars have continued to debate this issue. Some feel that one cannot come to a conclusion based upon what is not found. Others feel that more likely there was a small Semitic group known as Levites that left Egypt. This band of Levites grew into the Jewish people and subsequently wrote their origin story which became what we now call the Exodus narrative. This is, of course, supported by the fact that Moses (a Levite) had an Egyptian name as did other Levites mentioned in the Torah.
Was the Exodus fact or fiction? Arguments exist on both sides of the question. Even if one believes that Jews were never slaves in Egypt and that the Exodus may never have occurred, why did this story gain such prominence in Judaism and why should we continue to read it today? Let me suggest that the lack of archeological, historical evidence does not mean that there are not important lessons to learn from this epic story. The lack of historical truth does not imply a lack of what I like to call Truth with a capital “T.” The Truth that the Torah contains is Truth which may be emotional, spiritual or psychological Truth. It is Truth to guide us to live a more meaningful life. Just because the Torah may not be a historically accurate account of our origins, that does not diminish the Truth of its insights.
Indeed, whether we believe the Torah is historically true, given by God or words written by humans, we should turn to the Torah, knowing we can derive much needed guidance as we confront difficult issues in our families, in our communities and in our world.
Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emanu-El in Haverhill, currently the Interim Rabbi at Temple Israel in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and Schechter Alumni Parent