Pesach: History, Myth and Meaning

Pesach, the Hebrew name for the Jewish holiday of Passover has come and gone and now offers me an opportunity to discuss its historicity, its mythological elements and its possible meanings for us moderns, as I understand it. It is in the Book of Exodus, the second book in the Hebrew Bible, that the story of Pesach (so called from here on) is told. For me, it is the Pesach story and the subsequent liberation and the Exodus (Latin for departure, in Hebrew yetziyat mitzrayim) from Egypt of the Jewish slaves that represents Judaism’s “root experience.” Given the fact that Christianity is Judaism’s religious offshoot and, as such, appropriated its antecedent Jewish history, Pesach is also Christianity’s foundation, witness the fact that the first part of every complete Christian Bible consists of the Hebrew or Jewish Bible containing the Book of Exodus. The Hebrew name of the book is shemot, meaning “names,” deriving its name from the first significant word in the first sentence of that book.

I have often been asked whether the Pesach story within the Exodus narrative is historical. Without going here into fine details, my response has been YES, albeit with a qualifying remark suggesting that as is the case with much religious literature, related events having an historical kernel, are often exaggerated and mythologized. Considering the time of origin of Exodus which in all probability is the middle of the 13th cent. BCE, this should not surprise us. The same kind of exaggerations are found in Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian and other Middle Eastern religious stories. This said, we should not be surprised to find that the Jewish liberation story falls into the same literary milieu. This is not to suggest, however, that the Jewish story’s center, the liberation of the Jewish slaves, is not historical.

Remains, however, the question why what is described in the Bible as an incredible and therefore allegedly miraculous event is nowhere mentioned in Egyptian history of which we have plenty of documentation in terms of ancient monuments, wall, sarcophagi and papyrus inscriptions. One possible answer to this question might just be the ancient Middle Eastern rulers’ reluctance to make known to future generations their countries’ defeats, political mismanagements or miscalculations.

The fact is that Egyptian history nowhere mentions the Jewish slave’s departure from Egypt and thus their liberation from slavery. Given the number of slaves liberated, as indicated in the Book of Exodus having been six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children (Exod. 12:37) suggests that the total number of Hebrew slaves leaving Egypt was somewhere around one million eight hundred thousand people, considering three persons per family. This is an enormous amount of slaves in view of the total population of Egypt at that time having been estimated at only three million people. It is highly unlikely that 3 million people were able to maintain a slave population of say 1.8 million!

This problem’s solution has been found to lie in a possible mistranslation of the Hebrew word for “thousands” – alaphim in this particular literary context. Without going into the technical linguistic details here, scholars suggest that the number of slaves leaving Egypt was closer to 5,000 than 1.8 million.

Egyptian records consisting of correspondence between border guards in the eastern Nile Delta where border fortifications have been excavated, call for reinforcements to stem the flight of Egyptian slaves toward the land of Canaan. Could some of these slaves have been the Hebrew slaves referred to in the biblical story? Probability points in that direction. Based on this correspondence, the numbers of fleeing slaves in the low thousands make much more sense than the hundreds of thousands the biblical narrative suggests.

At the light of the above it can be concluded that the kernel of the Pesach/Exodus story is historical.

There is no need to dwell in any length on all  the miraculous elements in the Exodus narrative. Leading up to the actual departure of the slaves, there are the Ten Plagues, culminating in the death of all the firstborns in Egypt while the Jewish slaves’ children are saved when God himself slays the Egyptian first borns (Exod. 12:29). The parting of the Reed Sea (proper name for the body of water called in the Bible the Red Sea) is another alleged miracle from above, saving the fleeing Israelite slaves from the pursuing Egyptians. Rivers of ink have been spilled trying to explain what happened and Cecil B. DeMille’s cinematographic depiction of the miracle is, while admirably done, not very persuasive.

Is Israel mentioned anywhere at all in Egyptian historical writings? The answer is YES. On a victory monument of pharaoh Marneptah (1213 – 1203 BCE) discovered in 1896 at Thebes, also called the “Israel stele,” the hieroglyphs in line 27 are translated as “Israel.” The name Israel on the stele is mentioned as one among other enemies of Egypt, now defeated. The literal translation of the line reads, “Israel is laid waste and his seed is not;” It is not clear just who this Israel was or where it was located. The text does not correspond to any such defeat mentioned in the Bible.

Let us now reflect upon the meaning of Pesach and Exodus.

In short, it is a celebration of freedom. Slavery of any kind has no legitimate place on earth. For religious people the mandate to freedom for every human being comes from God and the book of Exodus is the locus of this mandate for Jews and Christians.

As is the case with parables and legends both in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, careful reading of the texts brings out contradictions and elements that do not make sense. This kind of literature was written millenia ago and our criticisms are often anachronistic. Had we lived “then,” we probably would have believed just as those ancients believed. This said, I am suggesting that parables and legends first have to be understood within the cultural context of their own time and secondly only in terms of how we, in our time, understand them.

The Haggadah our family used this past Pesach (The Concise Family Seder by Rabbi Alfred J. Kolatch) suggests that the essence of Passover is a message for the conscience and the heart of all humankind about “the deliverance of a people from degrading slavery, from cruel and inhuman tyranny… of the tyranny of poverty and the tyranny of privation,

of the tyranny of wealth and the tyranny of war,

of the tyranny of power and the tyranny of despair,

of the tyranny of disease and the tyranny of time,

of the tyranny of ignorance and the tyranny of [skin] color.”

And so, although it is the unnamed Pharaoh of old who is the tyrant of the Haggadah, it is not he alone of whom we speak at the Pesach seder. There are other tyrants and other tyrannies from which and from whom we need liberation.

To make myself clear, let me give you two widely disparate examples of what I mean by “liberation.” I had a cousin in Haifa, Israel, who had never learned to drive a car. He yearned to be independent from his mother or father having to “sacrifice” some of their time to take him around. Requesting that I intercede with his Mom on his behalf, I did just that only to have the experience of speaking to a wall. Aunt Steffi’s response to my words was, “I would not be able to sleep knowing that George is out in a car by night. I would not have a moment of peace knowing that he is exposed to danger on a highway. The answer is NO. I never will allow George to get a driver license.” You, the reader of these words, should know that my cousin George was only two years younger than I! As I see it, this was a mother’s selfish tyranny from which George needed to come free to become a mature adult..

One other example should explain what I mean by Pesach’s invitation (or is it a mandate?) for us to liberate ourselves from acquired intellectual imprisonment. By now it should be clear to any Jew in this our great country that our “Number One” leader is not only a racist, a misogynist, a white supremacist and also a malevolent cretin. And yet there are organized groups of Jews who support and follow him. In my quest for understanding this phenomenon, I fairly recently asked a Republican friend how he finds it possible to remain a Republican, given the fact that his party has sold out to the devil. His response was, “I vote Republican because the Jews in the south have always voted Republican.” I regretted hearing this because this kind of answer is not an answer from a responsible Jewish citizen, in my opinion.

The examples range from the ridiculous to the very serious. Pesach is a time for responsible reflection, preferably within the physical context of fellow Jews, on issues ranging from the private to the communal. It is also an opportunity to get to know each other as we share our lives’ complexities with friends in an effort to better understand and to grow toward responsibly lived Judaism and so also toward responsible country and world citizenship.

If this past Pesach helped you in such a direction , I am happy for you. If it did not, make sure next year’s celebration will.

Lack of love or lack of solid education?

Congratulations, Mr. Trump! You did it again. Thanks to special council Mueller’s recently released report, a 400 page document that at the time of this writing still has not been released to the public who paid for it, and thanks also to our newly appointed attorney general Mr. Barr who insists that a sitting president cannot be indicted and who, rather than releasing the whole document to the American people, decided to release his four page version of a summary of those pages to the public, Donald Trump comes out of two years of investigations of “Russia Gate” smelling like a rose to his political base and to the ethic-deprived Republican Party. No wonder! A morally corroded Republican government finds nothing wrong with its leader who might just be a moral cretin, as David Brooks, the Opinion Columnist of the New York Times (Feb. 28, 2019), suggests.

Will the population clamoring for the release of the entire report be responded to affirmatively? If so, how long will it be before this happens? Who knows? But if so, how will we be certain that important parts of the text will not have been deleted by a process similar to the famous Nixon tape erasures?

It is difficult not to become cynical about the goings on in Washington with a US president “desperate for approval,” blind to criticism thanks to his narcissism and insistence on living in a self-created unreal world. One is inclined to pity this creature were it not for this creature’s malevolence that is ruining not only our country but planet earth.

Having gotten the above off my chest, I return now to David Brooks’ excellent article in the New York Times referred to above. In this piece Brooks expresses wonderment about “who didn’t love Donald Trump?” Brooks continues with, “I often wonder who left an affection void that he has tried to fill by winning attention…He has turned his life into a marketing strategy…His desperate attempts to be loved have made him unable to receive love.”

This kind of apology for our president and his deeply flawed behavior is tantamount to reading a tearjerker. David Brooks whom I admire as a fine Opinion Columnist, in entering the professional domain of psychology with the above mentioned article, has overstepped his competence, in my opinion. This said, I am not suggesting that the article does not contain material worth reading.

As an educator for the last fifty some years, I find Trump’s thuggish behavior which is totally unbecoming of a US president, rooted not in his having suffered from deprivation of love but rather from his lack of a sound holistic education and from his having been brought up in a surrounding of wealth from his earliest years, with a silver spoon in his mouth. The man does not understand a fellow human’s suffering. He is incapable of experiencing compassion. My purpose in what follows here is not an effort to discover in detail Trump’s failed educational development but rather to lament the decline of the quality of higher education in our country in recent years or even decades.

To be more specific, I attribute Trump’s a-morality or immorality to his having been deprived of an educational experience that could have provided him with a well rounded personality by means of helping him acquire at least a minimum knowledge of philosophy, best found in the classics and in subsequent similarly oriented literature. Needless to say, it is in philosophy we encounter minds and voices engaged in critical thinking, a discipline tragically absent in much of our population, as also regrettably absent in our president.

Trump has boasted about his lack of necessity to read. His alleged innate natural intelligence and knowledge suffices for him to make judgments and decisions that impact not only the US but our planet. It is quite possible that this narcissistic attitude and behavior may have already caused irreparable damage to our living sphere. The point of no return may have been reached and crossed and the future of the planet may have already been determined. All this because of one man’s ignorance and self-love. It makes me shudder!

Back to our educational system. The engine that promotes and drives the demise of the study of philosophy which, of course, includes the study of ethics is career-ism. Our nation and all other nations need an educated citizenry. While making a decent living by means of specialized skills is absolutely necessary and while schools providing such skills to our citizenry are provided in our educational system, it is critical also to provide for these folks an education in the humanities so that our population be an intelligent and humane population and not a nation primarily preoccupied with how best to make money even at the expense of hurting others or, in the president’s words “how to make a deal” in the art of which he considers himself to be the unsurpassed master.

It is depressing to learn that a small percentage of students in liberal arts colleges and universities take courses in philosophy. Permit me at this point to become personal. I studied mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, after immigrating to the US. The engineering curriculum is heavy and demanding. I flunked the course in thermodynamics and had to repeat it, coming out of the second attempt with a measly grade of “C.” Subsequent to graduation I worked for General Motors Corp. for six years and earned several US patents in automotive-related design.

The greatest impact on my educational life, however, were not courses in metallurgy or differential equations. What changed my life by setting it on a course of pursuing truth was an elective course in philosophy, two semesters, taught by professor Samuel Stumpf, a Jewish philosopher who opened to me new vistas on life. What he did for me was to help me ask the important questions, answers to which I may or may not have received until now when I just passed year 92. It is most important to ask the right questions, the Jewish tradition teaches. It is questioning that leads to a life of satisfaction. Needless to say, some frustration is part of such a questioning life as well, but I vote in its favor and have taught my students accordingly. No regrets!

I venture to say that it was not lack of love that formed Trump into the miscreant he is. Trump represents the person who has no education but for his alleged ability “to make deals.” So far his deals have been tragically counterproductive, in my opinion. Only the future will tell whether I am right.

It is, of course, true that there is no direct connection between say ancient Greek language and culture, on the one hand and steady employment and good income, on the other hand. But higher learning has the potential of leading a person into knowledge, understanding and wisdom, the Jewish education triad, a universally acknowledged path to being a humane human being and thus a critically necessary component of a democratic society. There is such a thing as the pursuit of truth for truth’s sake! I do not deny the importance of utilitarianism and the learning of skills that enable one to make a decent living. I appreciate very much the availability of plumbers and electricians, policemen and trash collectors, not to mention dentists and physicians! To be a creative society, abstract learning is critically important and the path toward such learning is contingent on how our educational system inculcates in our young generations the love of knowledge.

My wife and I recently witnessed on TV the abysmal ignorance of some American college students about their own historical tradition, let alone philosophy. It was embarrassing to watch how on two occasions reporters randomly interviewed students on the campuses of the University of Pennsylvania and at Texas Tech. This is not the place to quote the many questions asked and answers given. One of the answers, representative as it was of many other similar responses, was so ridiculous that it deserves mentioning here. The question asked was “Who won the Civil War?” After a lengthy pause the student hesitatingly ventured his response: “Americans?” This kind of a fiasco cries out for an explanation: how did this and similar students succeed in enrolling into prestigious schools of higher learning, to begin with? Surely these randomly chosen students did not get there by means of parents having bought their admission, as has been discovered in some recently discovered cases! Enough said!

It would be unjust to blame our president for this and other examples of our deeply flawed educational system,. On the other hand, it must be said that having a president of such an abysmally low intellect and no ethical acumen who in absence of a teleprompter seems to communicate by means of no more than 300 to 500 words, often repeated three or more times, certainly is not an inspiration or role model for aspiring college students.

That an education that is driven primarily by careerism without emphasis on philosophical content incorporating ethics can lead to an a-moral or worse, an immoral society, should be clear. In my opinion, we are finding ourselves these days sliding down a slimy and steep slope toward a conscienceless society, a threat to us and our planet.

It is high time to listen to one of our great Jewish teachers from the faraway past, rabbi Tarfon: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world] but you are not free to desist from it either,” (Pirkey Avot 2:16).

Good luck!