Ex. 6:2 – 9:35
Rabbi Gary Pokras
Every spiritual tradition has a primary narrative, a story that defines what it stands for, and how and why it came into being. Ours is this: we were slaves in Egypt, then God redeemed us with a mighty and outstretched hand and gave us laws (Torah) to live by and our own land (Israel) so that we could become a light to the nations.
In VaEra, Moses is called to challenge Pharaoh, and the first seven Plagues are inflicted upon Egypt. In our weekly Torah study group, whenever we study this passage, the question is inevitably asked: “Did it really happen?” It is a reasonable question, and a deep challenge against the tradition. It is reasonable because there is no real archaeological evidence supporting the Exodus story. It is a deep challenge because if this this story isn’t ‘real’ then how can we trust the rest of Torah?
My response is always the same: when it comes to Torah, historical accuracy is irrelevant. The only truth that matters is that this is the text we have received, and when we study it, we discover deep and profound wisdom, and Jewish religious truths that transcend history.
Rabbi Janice Garfunkel wryly observes that, if it is in fact invented, ours is an odd history. Why would we create a history of slavery? Wouldn’t we want superiority?¹
Enter the wisdom and religious value of Torah. Contrary to the ancient Greeks who taught that people were born as either gold, silver, or bronze (aristocracy, free people, or slaves) Torah teaches that all of us are created in the Divine image. We were slaves and God want us to be free. When we see ourselves in this way, then we cultivate deep empathy for all people. Slavery is still alive and strong in the world. There is the physical slavery that remains through human trafficking and economic constraints. There is also psychological, cultural (caste systems, gender biases, etc.) and spiritual slavery (religious discrimination, etc.).
Torah has an overarching focus on justice, and slavery cannot exist in a just society. If we take Torah seriously, then every year we should look at the world and then ask ourselves: are we doing enough?
And that’s the truth.
1 Rabbi Janice Garfunkel, “Va-eira,” in Voices of Torah, vol. 2, CCAR Press, p. 106-7.