Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Pondering the Riddle of the Sphinx
April 30, 2005 21 Nisan 5765
Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky is the Nathan and Janet Appleman
Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies at JTS
This past December, I went with my wife and two adult children on a family vacation to Egypt. We began in Cairo at the pyramids and the Sphinx, cruised the Nile down to Luxor, Karnak, and Ramses, then crossed the Red Sea into Sinai. There, after snorkeling at Ras Muhammad and Sharm el Sheikh, we journeyed to St. Katherine's monastery, and climbed what is considered to be Mt. Sinai.
It was winter in Egypt and the mountain was snow-capped. The experience was awesome; the mountain, the Nile cruise, the craziness of Cairo, all left us spiritually enriched. We could not help but notice that our itinerary reproduced that of our ancestors, the Israelites, on their exodus from Egypt a millennia ago.
Of course, the Israelites had not actually been to Cairo, which was first built by the Muslims in 969 of the Common Era, some two thousand years after the Exodus. It is unlikely that Jewish slaves built the pyramids or the Sphinx, however romantic that notion might be; even the Bible offers no evidence for pyramid building. The Bible does suggest that the Jews "built store cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Ramses" (Exodus 1:11). Unfortunately, aside from the biblical account, there is no evidence that Israelite slaves built Ramses or any other town. Nowhere in the ubiquitous hieroglyphic records on Egyptian monuments is there any evidence of Israelites even having been captive in Egypt.
What, then, of the crossing of the Red Sea and standing at Sinai? At St. Katherine's, the monks will proudly show visitors the Burning Bush, and the well where Moses met his future wife - these, an added tourist bonus to the mountain looming large above the monastery. But there is substantial debate about just where Mt. Sinai is actually located and whether the Israelites (600,000 adult males plus their women and children; approximately two million all told) ever stood there at all.
So why make the pilgrimage? And why celebrate Passover? I think, to answer these profound questions, we must learn to distinguish between historic facts and truth. Many years ago, when I was on a panel at New York's 92nd Street Y, a woman from the audience asked, "How much of the Bible is true?" My colleague on the panel, Thomas Cahill, author of Gifts of the Jews, answered tongue-in-cheek, "Forty-seven point nine percent." Unfortunately, the questioner wrote the number in her notebook. Cahill looked at me, and I replied, "Some of the most important truths in life we learn from reading great fiction."
The story of the Exodus, the story of Israelite slavery, their redemption and their journey to Mt. Sinai, are extremely important truths. Whether they happened exactly the way the Bible says they did is beside the point. That a people might choose to imagine their origins as slaves is no small thing. Indeed, in the Bible, God constantly commands the Israelites, "Be kind to the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." The Bible reminds the Israelites of their indebtedness to God for their redemption from slavery. Gratitude to God for freedom and a command to welcome all human beings as God's fellow creatures are essential truths for any religious formation.
The story of the Exodus, whether historically factual or not, is a story of the beginnings of peoplehood that should be embraced with both arms and hugged to one's soul. It is a story that tells of enslavement, redemption and a covenant with God. It continues to offer a model for our own religious imaginations, a destination for family vacations and a spiritually awesome experience around the seder table.