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Chancellor's Parashah Commentary

Parashat Sh'lakh L'kha
Numbers 13:1 - 15:41
June 16, 2001     25 Sivan 5761

Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

According to Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman in their bracing new book, The Bible Unearthed, the Exodus from Egypt as recorded in the Bible is a saga inspired by the sudden ascendancy of the southern Kingdom of Judah in the reign of Josiah, a century after the final conquest by the Assyrians of the northern Kingdom of Israel in 720 BCE. Archaeology offers not the slightest confirmation of the biblical narrative, only an abundance of evidence for its implausibility. The authors write: "The escape of more than a tiny group from Egyptian control at the time of Ramesses II seems highly unlikely, as is the crossing of the desert and entry into Canaan. In the thirteenth century, Egypt was at the peak of its authority—the dominant power in the world. The Egyptian grip over Canaan was firm... Putting aside the possibility of divinely inspired miracles, one can hardly accept the idea of a flight of a large group of slaves from Egypt through heavily guarded border fortifications into the desert and then into Canaan in the time of such a formidable Egyptian presence (pp. 60, 61)."

The book by Finkelstein and Silberman is a daunting reconstruction of the history of ancient Israel through the lens of archaeology. Sweeping in scope and synthesis, crisply written and tightly argued, it puts forth a narrative utterly at odds with the one familiar to us from the pages of Genesis through Kings. Its skepticism about the Exodus is but one provocative example of many.

I raise this issue because it relates directly to the third paragraph of the Shema which concludes this week's parasha (Numbers 15:36-41). The passage instructs Israelites to attach tsitsit or tassels to the corners of their garments as a reminder to observe God's commandments. Prof. Jacob Milgrom contends that in the ancient Near East the ornateness of the hem was a mark of nobility. Hence the wearing of tsitsit denoted that all Israelites were members of a priestly nation with a universal mission. That status and its attendant obligations rest on God's deliverance of Israel from slavery, as the passage makes clear at the end: "I the Lord am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, the Lord your God (15:41)."

Prof. Milgrom cites a blunt midrash to drive home the depth of the connection between divine redemption and national indebtedness.

Why at every performance of a commandment must we have the Exodus in our thoughts? Here is a parable: It can be likened to a king whose friend's son was taken prisoner. The king redeemed him but expressly upon the understanding that he should become a slave so that at any time, if he should disobey the king, the latter would say: "You are my slave!" As soon as they entered the country, the king said to him: "Put on my sandals! Take my clothes to the bathhouse!" When the son began to protest, the king pulled out the bill of sale and said to him: "You are my slave!" So when the Holy One redeemed the descendants of Abraham, His friend, He did not redeem them so that they should be His sons but His slaves. So that when He commands and they do not obey He could say to them: "You are My slaves." And as soon as they went out into the wilderness, He began to issue some light commandments and some weighty ones, for instance: the laws concerning Sabbath and incest (weighty ones) and tsitsit and tefillin (Iight ones). When Israel began to protest, He said to them: "You are My slaves! For this reason have I redeemed you, that I might issue decrees and you should keep them." (JPS Torah Commentary, Numbers, p. 128).

In the same vein, the Ten Commandments open with a preamble that grounds law in history: "I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage (Exodus 20:2)." On this verse, another midrash raises an even more far-reaching question. "Why weren't the Ten Commandments put at the very beginning of the Torah? Here is a parable: It can be likened to a conqueror who enters a province and says to its inhabitants, 'Let me govern you,' to which they respond, 'What good have you done for us that we should accept your rule?' So what did he do? He built them a wall, brought them water and conducted their wars. Thus when he said again 'Let me govern you' they readily agreed. Similarly, God redeemed Israel from Egypt, split the sea, delivered manna, provided water, stuffed them with quail and fought Amalek. Only then did He say, "Let me govern you" and only then did they respond affirmatively. (Mechilta de R. Yishmael, ed. Horovitz, Rabin, p. 219).

Both parables add up to a deep insight into the literary structure of the Torah. Its core is a code of law, the mounting for which is an intricate and exquisite narrative. The sojourn in Egypt is the necessary prelude to the law given at Sinai. Norms are embedded in narrative to justify God's claim on Israel's gratitude. Thus when Finkelstein and Silberman demolish the historicity of the biblical narrative, they could not be raising a more fundamental challenge to the validity of Judaism itself. Does the challenge compel us to take refuge in a fundamentalist posture that repudiates the right of free inquiry? Must we feign ignorance of the vast recovery of the ancient Near East, which is surely one of the glorious feats of modern scholarship, in order to defend the pristine authority of the Torah?

I for one do not think so. The findings of science and history have long chipped away at the narrative matrix of Jewish practice without diminishing the hold of the ritual. Jews did not cease keeping Shabbat once scientists had shattered its biblical setting in the story of a six-day creation of the cosmos. Nor is the celebration of Purim any less joyous now that we know that its literary seedbed, the scroll of Esther, is a novella rather than a piece of history. Effective ritual has the power to transcend its origins and absorb new meanings. The Bible itself abounds with ritual practices, such as tsitsit, circumcision and animal sacrifices, borrowed from surrounding non-Israelite cultures and recast in consonance with a radically altered world view.

Nearly 100 years ago in a brilliant Hebrew essay on Moses, Ahad Ha'am took a different tack. What could be salvaged of the figure of Moses from the wreckage left by the source criticism of Wellhausen and his school? Everything! he insisted, because the Moses of Jewish consciousness had little to do with the Moses of antiquity. "The hero who lives on through the ages is not the hero as he was in his lifetime, but a creature of popular imagination... " In the terminology of Ahad Ha'am, "...Not every truth of archaeology is also a truth of history...History knows only the hero who still lives in men's hearts and exerts an influence on human life." At the Passover Seder it was Moses, the creature of the Jewish spirit, who hovered before Ahad Ha'am, unmarred by the research of the "antiquarians." "It is in figures such as this that the spirit of a people embodies its own deepest aspirations. They are fashioned as it were spontaneously... (trans. By Leon Simon)."

With rare perspicacity, Ahad Ha'am was reaching for the distinction that today we draw between history and memory. History is a reflective and tentative enterprise conducted according to accepted canons of research. Memory is unreflective, arbitrary and dogmatic. History seeks to recover as much of the past as possible; memory, to infuse what is preserved with meaning. The Moses of Ahad Ha'am is a figure of collective memory transmitted through ritual and recitation, whose power derives from consensus, acceptance and ownership. The ultimate authority of a revealed text rests not on its origins but on its affirmation by a faith community. While history tends to focus on the text in formation, memory is absorbed with its afterlife, the human response to the presence of God in the written word.

But The Bible Unearthed is far from history's final word. The determination to compress a vast and untidy assortment of data into a single, overarching explanation often takes it beyond the evidence. Its representation of the past will surely be the subject of intense scrutiny and much revision. In the meantime, collective memory will remain the wellspring of my commitment to a past both sacred and mystic.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ismar Schorsch



The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch's commentary on Parashat Sh'lakh L'kha are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.