Passover Pages of Sinai Temple
Did the Plagues and Other Miracles Happen?


(Some thoughts from Rabbi Shapiro)

Dear Friends:

     Here is what I consider as the Seder unfolds every year.

     First, it is absolutely reasonable to "believe" that the general outline of the story presented by the Torah corresponds with events that did take place.

     Although the writers of the Torah didn't supply us with specific dates and didn't specify the Pharaoh who enslaved our ancestors, most modern historians do accept the overall historicity of the exodus account. There are several reasons why historian (and me as well) accept the notion that the ancient Israelites were slaves in Egypt and then became free.

     For example, the Torah's description of the way in which bricks were made for the pyramids happens to correspond with contemporaneous Egyptian records. Unless our ancestors had firsthand experience of these bricks it would seem surprising for them to know as much as they did. In addition, Egyptian names such as Moses and the midwives Shiphrah and Puah appear in the Hebrew Bible- suggesting that whoever wrote the text was familiar with Egypt.

     Most importantly, I believe our ancestors were slaves at one point in time because it would not be to their advantage to have invented such a tradition. If they were going to create some story of their origins, it would have been so much more attractive to have said we Jews originated with grand or wealthy people. The fact that the Torah presents the opposite ("We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt") suggests to me that the tradition of slavery was something with which our ancestors were simply "stuck." It was an unavoidable part of their heritage.

     But did the plagues actually take place as described in the Book of Exodus? Did our ancestors actually cross the Red Sea (more accurately called the Sea of Reeds)?

     When it comes to these two questions, I have a suggestion. Don't ask them using such phrases as "actually take place" or "actually cross." Don't phrase the questions that way because questions of this sort force an answer which is too simple!

     Of course, I'm aware of the fact that the plagues and the Sea narrative are fantastic. It is hard to "believe" that events literally unfolded as they are described in the Torah. On the other hand, I don't ever want to be forced into the simplistic notion that the Torah is either true or false. I don't want to have to accept the stories precisely as they appear or altogether reject them.

     Instead, of that, I would rather enter into the drama of the narrative. I would rather not worry about the details of Plaque #4 or Plague #7. I would rather touch base with the energy that pulses through the overall story.

     I don't know if our ancestors witnessed the Sea split neatly in two. (I suspect that they didn't; I suspect that whatever happened was a lot less clear cut than the Book of Exodus tells us.) But that doesn't matter as much to me as trying to capture the feelings of surprise and wonder that the events of the exodus elicited from our ancestors. They were awestruck. They felt that God had transformed their lives. AND the belief that God cared about freedom and justice went on to become the cornerstone of all future Judaism.

     Of course, you and I could debate the "truth" of the narrative. Biblical scholars have been doing this for years. (Come to a Saturday morning Torah Study session where that is our purpose.) But what matters at the Seder is getting caught up in the spirit of 4,000 years.

     The "truth" of the matter is that the Haggadah is grand theater, and on Passover evening we become the players in the drama that teaches truths of historic proportions.

     Enjoy the show! Let yourself become part of it!


Searching for Truth at Big Y: Did the plagues happen? Were we in Egypt?

April 8, 2013

I just returned from Big Y where most of us doesn’t usually search for much more than good bananas or the particular milk we like best.

Today was different.

I met a congregant who had read the article in the recent issue of Reform Judaism Magazine that said our ancestors were never slaves in Egypt. Was it true, she asked. Were the Jews slaves in Egypt or was it a fable?

Two comments –

First, we did study the article at Torah Study several weeks ago because I thought the article raised a good question. We took an hour to explore the author’s claims and to read some of the biblical texts he cites.

Second, it’s complicated. The article does not present groundbreaking material. Scholars have been exploring what may or may not have shaped early Jewish history for almost 200 years!

Over time two schools of thought have emerged.

The first is the maximalist position. Here you find students of the Bible who basically accept the claim that the Jewish people were slaves in Egypt and escaped that slavery as a group. Maximalists find proof in a number of ways.

The second position is the minimalist position. The RJ article represented that viewpoint which suggests that almost no Jews ever expereicned Egyptian slavery. The “story” was made into a Jewish story for a number of political reasons later in Jewish history.

Which position is "true?"

Were we enslaved in Egypt?

Like many students of the Bible, I favor a middle position. I believe that, although all of our ancestors were not in Egypt, a significant number did experience slavery and freedom. They ultimately came to Canaann where they met Jewish cousins and where the story of the Exodus leading to freedom became the central way of understanding Jewish origins and purpose.

Were we in Egypt?

It's the same as asking whether you and I (mostly descendants of East European immigrants) were at the Pilgrim's Thanksgiving or whether you and I honor the Gettysburg Address as a part of who we are.

The same holds true for Jewish experience.

We don't literally have to have been in Egypt. We don't have to have stood next to Moses when the commandments were given. If we are Jewish, those events are ours. If we are Jewish, the values and morals behind those events are what we believe.

It's true: as surely as I believe in freedom and fairness and justice, my ancestors were in Egypt. And so were yours!