If a pharaoh fell in the Red Sea but nobody told the story, did it actually happen? No.
If no pharaoh fell in the Red Sea, but we told the story for 3,000 years, did it actually happen? Yes.
Is it still happening? Yes.
To people brought up in the modern mode of focusing on cold, hard facts, these responses may seem ridiculous. Either something happened or it didn’t.
Suppose, however, that we can find no evidence beyond the Bible that our ancient stories of Exodus and wandering in the wilderness actually happened the way we have learned them. Should we throw them out? Or is there some profound value for our generation in retelling the story of Exodus, of Sinai, and of wilderness?
We concluded that there is indeed deep wisdom in reframing and retelling the story, and that is why we wrote Freedom Journeys, paying especially close attention to the transformative roles of women and of ecological upheavals that have often been downplayed in previous tellings of the Exodus story.
While modern historians and archeologists look for evidence outside the biblical text that the Exodus actually happened, the story lives, more powerful than its factuality, because it speaks to deep strands of arrogance, fear, despair, and courage in the human process.
Far beyond the Jewish community, it has influenced not only the religious traditions of Christianity and Islam, but also the life of black America and many modern secular liberation movements rooted in class, nation, culture, and gender. It has even influenced efforts to free and heal the Earth from destructive exploitation.
The pharaoh motif invoked in news coverage of the recent Egyptian upheaval that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak was due certainly not only to geographic accident, but also to the nature of tyranny and popular resistance.
And the issues are not only macro-political, but apply also to the spiritual and psychological struggles of individual human beings confronting their own “internal pharaohs,” when one aspect of the self takes over the whole person, twisting and perverting a person’s humanity by turning other facets of the self into slaves that yearn for freedom and full integration.
As T. S. Eliot wrote, “April is the cruelest month, mixing memory with desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.”
Mixing memory with desire; weaving together our memory of the past with our hope for the future, a profound description of the intertwining of Exodus with Passover, Passover with Palm Sunday, Moses with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Mixing memory with desire” is what the biblical account of Exodus does by weaving together the description of the Exodus itself as a moment in the utter present — hope and desire turned into action — with detailed instructions of how to celebrate that transformative moment, remembering it through festivals far into the future.
Looking at the world today, we see the whole human race, the whole planet in a crisis that reminds us of the archetypal tale of Pharaoh and the Ten Plagues, which were ecological disasters brought on by Pharaoh’s arrogance, stubbornness, and brutality.
Today it is the arrogance of some powerful human institutions that an overwhelming majority of the world’s climatologists, oceanographers, and epidemiologists say is leading to the Earth’s oceans and atmosphere heating up in a way that is already disrupting climate patterns and is likely to bring about radical changes in polar and high-mountain ice, ocean levels, droughts, crops, and distribution of disease.
These predictions warn of huge movements of new kinds of refugees, deepening the gulf between the extremely rich and the desperately poor, and could lead to the widespread collapse of many governments. In short, to what the Torah calls “plagues.”
But the echo of the Exodus story does not stop there. The ancient story sows the seeds of hope, too. A new community was born at Sinai and tested in many experiments during the trek in wilderness. Today we are seeing the seeds sown for new forms of grass-roots community that curve across our globe.
So we believe that whether the story of Pharaoh, the Exodus, and the wilderness “actually happened” or not, our present situation calls us to relearn and rethink the story. It calls upon us to learn in order to act.
Rabbis Arthur Waskow and Phyllis Berman are the authors of Freedom Journeys (Jewish Lights Publishing). Waskow founded and directs The Shalom Center in Philadelphia; Berman founded and directs the Riverside Language Program, which teaches English to new immigrants.