First Day of Pesach 2011

1. Hag Sameach

2. A number of years ago, Rabbi David Wolpe, the senior rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, made world headlines by claiming, on Pesach, that the biblical story of the Exodus was all a myth; that it never happened. The Bible story, he said, was just a story and there was no proof that it had ever actually happened. You can imagine the reaction from all over the world. Jews from everywhere condemned the Rabbi, calling him a heretic for not believing in the words of the Bible. After all, if the Bible says something, it has to be true.

3. The Christian community was not too far behind. It was as if Rabbi Wolpe had attacked the core of their faith. They said it does not matter if there is any proof of the Exodus or not. Our faith tells us that the Bible is the true word of God and only the Devil claims that the words of the Bible are stories that can be ignored. Clearly the Rabbi was in league with Satan. The Jewish community was very embarrassed by Rabbi Wolpe, and accused him of bringing down on our community the wrath of all American Christians.

4. The newspapers had a field day with the whole controversy. I have yet to meet a reporter who does not have a hard time with the Bible. Bible stories seem to be the classic example of poor reporting. News reporting is based on the five “W”s – Who? What? Where? When? and Why? The newspapers where only too happy to report on this “scandal” that the words of the Bible might not be true. The reporters lined up all kinds of clergy to offer testimony on whether they agreed with Rabbi Wolpe or not. These reporters all but snickered as priests, rabbis and theologians argued over what the Bible says or does not say.

5. What got lost in all the shouting was the fact that, for most biblical scholars, there is little doubt in their minds that what the Bible records as the exodus of the Jews from Egypt is unsupported anywhere else in the Middle East. The fact is we just don’t know what is historically true in these Bible stories and what is not historically true. We don’t know if any part of the Bible prior to King Ahab is accurate from a historical perspective. Some evidence from archeology seems to support the accuracy of the Bible; other evidence raises some serious questions. In the end, there is, so far, no way to be certain.

6. Perhaps you are aware that there is a controversy in Israel right now about if the palace of King David has been found. Excavations in Jerusalem, where the ancient city of David was located have produced a massive structure. Could this be the palace that inspired King David to want to build the Temple? Scholars are divided over the evidence so far. If so, it will be first direct evidence of King David every uncovered.

7. As for the Exodus, it is doubtful that any real archeological evidence will be found. The Egyptians don’t mention it; but they never wrote about their defeats. There is no record in any other culture of the slave revolt and exodus from Egypt. Wandering Jews don’t leave behind much of a footprint in history. And the story in the Torah is maddeningly difficult to pin down as to its time in the historical record. For example, did the plagues happen over the course of weeks or over the course of a year? Was the plague of darkness a solar eclipse or a massive sandstorm? The description of slavery in Egypt seems to fit the way Egypt treated her slaves, but they never mention Jewish slaves, Joseph or Moses. All the kings of Egypt were called Pharaoh, so which one was the Pharaoh during the Exodus? There is no way to know.

8. Historical truth, however, is not the only kind of truth. When we recite our Seder, when we declare that the Exodus is not a memory of the past but a living present: when we declare that WE are the Hebrew slaves that God liberated from slavery; we affirm that there are important truths about life and liberty that are found in this story. It is these moral truths that make the Exodus so important to Jews and to all of western civilization.

9. The Hasidim have a tradition, the founder of their movement, the Bal Shem Tov, when he would need a miracle, would go into the forest, build a special fire and say a special prayer and the miracle would always come from God. His successors, over time, forgot the special place in the forest, the way to build the special fire and they even eventually forgot the special prayer. But the later Rebbes would tell the story of the Baal Shem Tov, the special place, the special fire and the special prayer, and just by telling the story, the miracle needed would occur. This is not a tale about magic and superstition, rather it is telling us that stories have their own power, and the accuracy of the story does not impair its ability to make a difference.

10. We happen to live in a time and place where Jews have experienced an unprecedented amount of freedom and security. There is no question that the United States has been good for the Jews. Whatever anti-Semitism we may have encountered over the past 200 years, has been small and almost inconsequential compared to Christian Spain, Ancient Rome and Biblical Egypt. How are we to understand the meaning of the freedom we experience every day without the context of slavery and degradation? The Rabbis of the Talmud understood that the lessons of the Exodus were far more important than the historical events; that freedom is more important than dates; that evil oppressors must be opposed; that the creation of all people in the image of God is more important than the divine right of kings. How were they to take these enduring lessons and have those of us who are smothered in freedom, see, feel and taste the meaning of oppression and liberation? The Seder was created, not to assure the historical accuracy of the Exodus, but to insure that the lessons of Egypt would not be lost on future generations who did not know Pharaoh.

11. It is not enough to just read the Haggada at our Sederim. It is not enough to race through the book and share family stories and recipes. Sharing family history is important but the duty of the Seder, the Mitzvah of the Seder, goes far beyond a family dinner. The reason that Pesach is important and the Seder is one of the most observed Jewish rituals is because it speaks to something far beyond us and our families. It is about finding ourselves in the long history of the Jewish People. It is about taking our place at the table, and taking our turn at telling the story.

12. Karpas dipped in salt water is not just an hors d’oeurve, but a symbol of the many springtimes that were drowned in the tears of the slaves. Haroset dipped in maror is about the bitterness of slavery and the sting of the taskmaster’s whip. At the beginning of the Seder, the matza is not just bread, but it is the bread of affliction, the bread made in haste by our ancestors because they did not have time to properly bake bread. They had to get up early and serve their masters. By the end of the Seder, the matzah has a new meaning; it is the bread, cooked in haste, as our ancestors prepared for their journey to the promised land. It is no longer poor bread but the bread of redemption; it has a new meaning and although the ingredients are the same, the bread of redemption just tastes better than the bread of affliction.

13. How joyful is freedom? How do we celebrate our God who freed us from bondage? If one cup of wine equals normal joy in life we celebrate with no less than four cups of wine, to symbolize our overflowing joy in celebration of the great redemption. Then we fill a fifth cup, the cup of Elijah, who represents the even greater joy that will come when God will finally redeem the entire world. The entire Seder is a service of joy and remembrance. We remember the agony of our ancestors who despaired of every being free, and the sudden way in which God made their freedom possible. We also celebrate at our Seder that we too were slaves, are slaves, and with the help of God we too can be free. We can be free of all that chains us down and prevents us from meeting all of our potential in life.

14. At the end of the Seder, at the end of the last song, we affirm that someday God will come and destroy the Angel of Death; that we will eventually be freed even from our fear of death. The God who freed our ancestors who went down into Egypt and suffered slavery with our people, that God still feels our pain and continues to work to heal our souls. That affirmation does not depend on historical accuracy or archeological evidence. It only depends on us opening our hearts to the story and our souls to all the possibilities that come when our bodies are free.

Amen and I wish everyone a happy and Kosher Pesach and a meaningful second Seder.

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