Jewish History & Ethical Imperatives
Dr. Ronald A. Brauner
Aside from the biblical record itself, there is absolutely
no evidence for the presence of Jews in ancient Egypt or their exodus therefrom. Despite Emanuel Velikovsky, Werner Keller and all the others who desperately seek and imagine clues which simply aren't there, the enslavement and ultimate liberation from Egypt are a record for the Torah only. Now don't get me wrong - for millenia, the Torah record has been sufficient for those who accept its truth. One can take no issue with any person for whom the truth of history is the truth revealed by scripture! But my concern here is with those for whom something more than Torah is needed to establish fact.
What shall we say about Pesah, this most central event in our history, when, for any of its details, large or small, we have no independent substantiation? To what can we appeal to demonstrate the reality of the Festival of Freedom? Perhaps, in the end, we will simply have to admit that Pesah never really happened at all! We have no archaeological proof, we have no anthropological proof, we have no liguistic proof, we have no corroborative literary proof.
But wait...who said that the only things which verify history are archaeology or anthropology or geology or things like that? Where did we ever get the idea that the truth of history is to be found in the armamentarium of the sciences? The Jewish tradition would assert that the TRUTH of history is not its independently verifiable data but rather its
consequentiality, that history is what it has come to mean in the lives of people who take it seriously. The Jewish people have taken Pesah seriously and an entire legal/behavioral system has grown up around the TRUTH that Pesah indeed happened.
Every time we say that the alien must not be oppressed (
Exodus 23:9), we verify that Pesah happened-
Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens,
because you were aliens in Egypt.
All the while we eat matzah during the festival (
Ex.12:17-18), we confirm that Pesah happened -
Celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread, because it was on this very day that
I brought your ranks out of Egypt. Celebrate this day as a lasting ordinance for your generations to come . . . you shall eat unleavened bread . . .
All the while we reject slavery (
Leviticus 25:39-42), we establish the truth of our history -
If one of your countrymen becomes poor among you and sells himself to you, do not work him as a slave . . . because the Israelites are
my servants, whom I liberated from Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves.
All the while we raise up our children in the Jewish tradition (
Exodus 12:26-27), we substantiate the reality of our past experience-
And when your children ask you, "What do you mean by this rite?" you shall say, "It is the Pesah sacrifice to the Lord who protected the houses of
the Israelites in Egypt when he struck the Egyptians but saved our houses. . . ."
All the while we pursue holiness (
Lev.11:45), we attest to God and God's providence in history -
I am the Lord who
brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.
In all, for us it is not the matter that we
speak of history, it is the matter that we live it! Our daily actions, our private lives, our mundane behaviors, our professional conduct - all relate somehow and someway to the ultimate truths which we have the power to validate. The Torah instructs us, in speaking of weights and measures (Lev. 19:35-37) -
You shall not falsify measures of length, weight or capacity. You shall have an honest balance, honest weights, an honest ephah and an honest hin.
I the Lord am your God who freed you from the land of Egypt. You shall faithfully observe all My laws and all My rules; I am the Lord.
And our teacher Moses Maimonides in his sublime legal code,
Mishneh Torah, sums up for us the essence of the verity and reality of history for Jews (Torts, Theft, 7:12) -
Whoever denies the binding validity [of the commandment relating to] measures, denies in effect the Exodus from Egypt, which is the basis of the commandment; but whoever obligates himself to the commandment relating to measures, acknowledges thereby the Exodus from Egypt, which rendered all the commandments possible.

1998, Foundation for Jewish Studies, Inc.