April 2019, Pesach

Dear friends,

Every year around this time I am asked the same question. Does the story of Pesach, as told in the Torah, stack up? From what we have learnt to date in all the different fields of history, archaeology, and anthropology, is there a factual basis for a massive nation being enslaved by the Egyptians breaking free after a series of miracles culminating in the greatest of them all, the splitting of the Red Sea?

Admittedly I do like to indulge in this sort of conversation. The more we learn of ancient history, the more interesting the Torah seems to get. To put us on the historical map we have The Merneptah Stele, an inscription by the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Merneptah which includes the following lines:

‘Hatti is pacified, Canaan has been plundered into every sort of woe. Ashkelon has been overcome; Gezer has been captured; Yanoam is made non-existent. Israel is laid waste and his seed is not.’

Since this Pharaoh reigned 1213-1203 BCE the mention of Israel in Canaan at this point certainly establishes the antiquity of our people as historical fact. The names of places mentioned likewise lends support in broad terms to the truth of the story.

More generally, names of Egyptians people and places also stack up. Pharaohs existed and they were pretty powerful. They built major cities and monumental works, amongst them Pitom and Ramses. They had a huge slave population. Moshe is an Egyptian name and Ramses lll corresponds nicely with the Pharaoh of exodus.

The Egyptians practised witchcraft, worshipped the ram, and had lots of gold, all facts which give weight to the story as told in the Torah.

In line with such an approach, many then proceed to analyse the different miracles mentioned in the Torah and attempt to give them scientifically sound explanations.

The sudden appearance of red-hued waters in the Nile could have been caused by a red algae bloom.
The phenomenon of “raining frogs” has been reported multiple times throughout history and in a range of locations around the world. A report published July 12, 1873 in Scientific American described “a shower of frogs which darkened the air and covered the ground for a long distance,” following a recent rainstorm. And in May 2010 in Greece, thousands of frogs emerged from a lake in the northern part of the country, likely in search of food, and disrupted traffic for days, CBS News reported.

Lice is unfortunately still a plague today in most kindergartens, even Jewish ones. Wild animals causing havoc, mass death of livestock, locusts, plagues which cause boils, and off the chart hailstorms, are phenomena still prevalent today.

And of course the biggest of them all, the splitting of the Red Sea can be explained with winds and tides.

But this approach misses the point entirely. It is a story about the wrongs that stem from a philosophy of might is right. A story about the egalitarian nature of humanity with one dominating or worse enslaving another is inherently wrong.

This is the reason why 80% of Jews in Australia conduct a Seder. Because it holds a universal message of morality that creates the potential for Israel to truly be ‘a light unto the nations’. It is this inspiration which also explains why Jews have always been at the heart and centre of social justice movements.

Sadly though there is one issue which, to date, we as a community seem to be lagging behind. We are not leaders in the movement to save our planet from environmental disaster of our own doing.

I’m not a scientist but when David Attenborough and Yuval Harari both warn us of imminent doom if we do not make massive changes, I listen.

This is entirely apolitical. Whether you come from the right or the left, the environment doesn’t care. The rapid melting of ice in our poles will certainly mean that very soon we will have a very real crisis of environmental refugees. There is a tipping point at which turning the oven off at that point is simply too little too late.

We, as Jews and Australians, have the capacity to truly be leaders in the international conversation about climate change. Just as New Zealand rose to the occasion to lead the way in race relations after Christchurch, Australia, can play a leading role in affecting real change.

You may ask, how is Pesach connected to the environment? My answer: the Ten Plagues. They are all environmental catastrophes. This could also shed light on an obscure and seemingly nonsensical debate found in the Haggadah as to how many plagues there were all up. The ten gets converted into 50 plagues according R. Yossi, 200 for R. Eliezer, and 250 for the third and final bidder R. Akiva.

Really? Ten devastations of your enemy weren’t enough? Clearly then, these rabbis had in mind the human potential to harm the environment so significantly that the myriad of plagues gets multiplied exponentially. Just as God heard the sound of moaning of the slaves and brought about redemption, my hope is that we all become more vocal and active about this most grave, critical, and urgent issue of our time which we have the knowledge to fix and not wait.

I do not want to be sitting at a Seder with my sons in twenty years’ time when they ask how we let it happen. If we sit by and do nothing at all we will turn out to be as hypocritical as the American Jewish slave owners who reclined to celebrate their emancipation from slavery with their wine served to them by their very own slaves.

In every generation we must view ourselves as if we were slaves in Egypt. How then do we keep this command of the Haggadah? By recognising what are enslaved by and do something about it.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,
Rabbi Shneur