Story and truth
April 29, 2005
This morning I spent a while translating the first lines of this week's Torah portion, the one set for the seventh day of Passover: Exodus 14:30-15:21.
The passage begins simply enough. But then it becomes poetry, which looks different from prose, and which is trickier to translate, though very beautiful. This particular poem is called Shirat Ha-Yam/the Song of the Sea, which Moses and the children of Israel sang to God after crossing the Sea of Reeds. The particular odd layout of this passage is often compared to brickwork, though I've also heard that it's meant to evoke the ocean crossing, with ragged waves drawing back on both sides and a column of Israelites in the middle.
Verse eleven of the song is the one most people know from the regular liturgy: Mi chamocha ba'eilim, Adonai? Mi kamocha, ne'edar bakodesh, nora tehilot, oseh feleh! ("Who is like You, My Lord, among the gods? Who is like You, glorious in holiness, awesome in praises, doing miracles!") That "among the gods" is often read as a signal that this liturgical poem predates the prose which surrounds it. Why would the text ask that question unless the existence of multiple gods were presumed? And while we're at it, what would it mean to us if the Shirat Ha-Yam were historically proven to be older than the rest of Exodus?
Or, phrased differently: if one buys the documentary hypothesis, can the Torah also be read devotionally as a holy text? (The simple answer seems to me obviously to be "yes," because I do and I do, but I think there's some merit in teasing this out a little further.)
Every few years it seems there's a new controversy about whether or not the Exodus "really happened." Is there historical record of Israelite slaves in Egypt? Can we explain the parting of the sea scientifically? How on earth did these nimrods manage to be lost for forty whole years in a desert that's honestly not that big? And, maybe most importantly, what does it mean for our faith if this story turns out not to be historically "true"? What does it mean for Jewish peoplehood if our creation narrative, the story of how our ancestors became a unified people in covenant with a redeeming God, didn't actually happen?
The thing is, while I respect that these are really vital questions for some of us, as far as I'm personally concerned the historicity of the Exodus doesn't matter a whit. As Rabbi David Wolpe has written, "The Torah is not a book we turn to for historical accuracy, but rather for truth. The story of the Exodus lives in us." Rabbi Joe Rappaport agrees:
The essential question of this tale, the message of Shirat Hayam has literally nothing to do with the great 'did it happen debate.' It is instead the lesson of Nachshon ben Aminidav, the midrashic hero who was first to step into the sea.... We are, in fact, a people of great faith--not in the simple sense that we believe all these stories we have handed down, but in a deeper sense which is revealed in the waves of this week's text. We are a people who has forever taken steps to make prayers real.
The CyberRav, too, says "Did the Exodus really happen? No one knows nor should they presume to answer. But I can tell you that the tale is a sacred tale, that it lies at the foundation of Jewish life, and that it guides us in our faith in God, justice, freedom, and the special relationship between God and the Jewish people."
Truth can exist outside of historical fact. (Indeed, this is the premise on which literature is built.) Whether or not my ancient ancestors were actually slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt, what matters is that I choose each year to retell the story as if it were true. What matters is that I do my best to hew to Torah's injunction "Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Mitzrayim." What matters is that I consider myself a part of the people who tell this story as a sign of our priority and identity. We were birthed from slavery into the freedom of uncertainty and the obligation of covenantal relationship: this is the most important story we tell about ourselves, and what matters is that we tell it.
One midrash tells us that the waters did not part until a guy named Nachshon bravely took the first step into the roiling waves: that says something important about the necessity of acting even when the outcome is unclear. Another midrash tells us that two Israelites named Reuven and Shimon hated the sea-crossing because they noticed only the grit and muck, the detritus left from the receding waters, and found the trek an agony of sludge. Others looked up, saw the towering walls of water on either side, and danced across in awe and joy. They walked the same path -- but the ones who focused on the dirt and the inconvenience missed the miracle altogether. That tells us something important about keeping our eyes open, and about openness to awe.
And the Shirat Ha-Yam, the Song of the Sea, tells us that when we had safely reached the other side of the waters, our people sang to their Source. And I think that tells us something important about how to respond to momentous occasions in our lives, and about the imperative to sanctify our lives through offering praise.
Did the Exodus happen? Was the Song of the Sea a spontaneous outburst from Moses and the Israelites, or is it an older victory-hymn subsumed into the story we now call Torah? I'm not sure we can know. But even if the Exodus didn't happen in verifiable history, that doesn't affect my Jewishness, the joy I take in celebrating Pesach, or the beauty I find in the Shirat Ha-Yam. As Rabbi Barry Block (head rabbi at my parents' shul) said a few years ago, "May we ever derive meaning from the Exodus, whether it happened or not." Amen.