As we approach the end of our annual reading of Deuteronomy, I can't help but be thankful for the relative ease of our exodus to the Promised Land compared to our ancestors: Seriously, Manna from heaven! 40 years in the desert! The Golden Calf!
But did it really happen like that?
I don't mean to sound facetious here. The Exodus, and unfortunate wanderings that followed, are easy to dismiss as brilliant 'storytelling' and nothing more. And within the recorded story, there are certainly elements that demand interpretation. The Torah was meant to be read and re-read by each generation; more importantly, it was meant to be relevant and inspirational. Sometimes, it's not the literal words that accomplish these things but the dynamic between the text and our experiences and ability to comprehend. One of the things I love is the Jewish custom of re-reading Torah portions every year.
It never ceases to amaze me how time and again, a passage I've read dozens of times can suddenly leap out at me with profound meaning and clarity. Did the words change? Did the story change? Not at all. I changed. I grew through study and gained new experiences as I've aged.
Torah interpretation also allows each generation to apply contemporary values and beliefs to the understanding of the texts. A good example of this is the phrase, "An eye for an eye." (Exodus 21) The rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud, recording oral tradition going back at least centuries, could not believe that the phrase was ever meant to be understood literally; the notion was abhorrent then and now. It was
clear that the text referred to monetary compensation because that understanding was consistent with their values.
Perhaps the understanding was different 3,500 years ago. Perhaps it will change in the future. Neither of which is as important as how the words are understood and applied to our lives today. Each generation is obligated to address the fundamental concerns and values of its time and to struggle with the parameters of necessary and permissible change. Deuteronomy itself insists upon this: we must rely on the judges/priests/leaders of our time "even if they say that right is left and left is right" (Sifre on Parashat Shoftim). And as we read in Parashat Nitzavim, "[Torah] is not in the heavens."
Did the Exodus really happen? Perhaps not exactly as described, but then the historicity of the Bible isn't as important as its relevance and meaning. The Bible isn't a history book, nor should it ever be reduced to such a mundane purpose. It's much deeper than that.
(crossposted to altmanaliyah.blogspot.com)