Yom Sheini, 18 Av 5779
Monday, 19 August 2019
Pesach 2015

Parashat Pesach
3rd April 2015 - Rabbi Pete Tobias

It was March 1970. I was twelve years old and listening to the rabbi of my United Synagogue Cheder class going through the plagues of Egypt. Needless to say the events detailed in the early chapters of the book of Exodus were presented to my fellow bar-mitzvah students and me as being incontrovertible truth…

I don’t know why it was the ninth plague that particularly offended my pre-teenage sense of logic and fair play. After all, darkness is probably the most innocuous of all the plagues. Nothing dies, no living creatures behave in unusual ways like swarming, stampeding or changing habitat and there certainly isn’t the terror of the plague that follows it; the slaughter of Egypt’s firstborn.

But it was the plague of darkness that caused me to raise my hand and my voice in protest. Not the darkness per se, but rather the fact that while the hapless Egyptians were stumbling around in impenetrable gloom for three days (and nights, presumably), verse 23 of chapter ten of the book of Exodus assures us that ‘…all the Israelites had light in the places where they dwelt.’

‘What is it Peter Tobias?’ asked the rabbi in a weary voice. ‘How can there be light just for the Israelites when the rest of the land is in darkness?’ I asked hesitantly. The rabbi was known for his Glaswegian temper, especially apparent when dealing with the questions of twelve year-old boys. ‘I mean – how can that be true…?’

‘If you don’t believe that it’s true then you’re not really Jewish!’ came the response that I can still remember as clearly as when it was uttered four and a half decades ago. I did believe that. So I celebrated becoming bar-mitzvah five months later and took my leave of that synagogue, never to return.

The story of how I got from there to the Liberal rabbinate exactly twenty years later is another story.* As luck would have it, in my first year at the Leo Baeck College, there was a Biblical History class taught by Rabbi Julia Neuberger. It finally gave me the chance to ask many of the questions that I had been discouraged from asking when I had been on the verge of Jewish adulthood. I was especially delighted when I was asked to prepare a paper addressing the question ‘Did the Exodus Really Happen?’

I read a variety of books on the subject, but it was one by Ian Wilson entitled ‘The Exodus Enigma’ that especially intrigued me. It explained in detail how the eruption of the Mediterranean island of Thera (today called Santorini) may have been the source of the biblical plagues as described in chapters 7-12 of the book of Exodus. Offering this alternative version of the story of the Exodus is still my favourite part of teaching my bar-/bat-mitzvah class. For the last eight years or so I’ve used my own book ‘Never Mind the Bullocks’** to teach my twelve year-olds. It’s a series of imaginary conversations (based on a real experience) between an English rabbi and a group of twelve year-olds at an American Jewish summer camp in the summer of 2005. Here’s how this particular episode is handled:

‘‘Okay, here goes. We know – again from archaeology – that there was a massive volcanic eruption on an island in the Mediterranean Sea at around the time the Israelites would have been in Egypt. It was massive – half an island just disappeared. It was called Thera – its modern name is Santorini. I went there once and you can see that half the island is just, well, missing. And the consequences of the eruption would have been felt in the Delta region of the Nile, on the opposite shore of the Mediterranean – again, archaeology has proved this.

‘And the after effects of volcanic eruptions have been well-documented in other incidents. We know that, for example, the ash that comes out of a volcano is full of iron oxide – which is red and smells like blood because of the iron. It would have blown over from this volcano and landed in the rivers, turning them red. And if the river gets clogged with volcanic dust, those that live in it will die – but those that can get out …’· I paused, inviting a little audience participation.

‘Frogs!’ cried Jess, excitedly.

‘… do just that.’· I concluded my sentence like we were acting out a pre-rehearsed script.

I went on, quickly now, explaining how swarms of insects travel away from an erupting volcano, and there was a period of darkness as the dust clouds gathered. The animal world was disrupted too: animals choking on the falling dust or stampeding in panic. As I offered an explanation for each of the plagues, I crossed them off my list.

‘The hail is the most interesting,’ I continued. ‘The bible calls it “hail with fire flashing in it, the like of which has never been seen before.”· If you’ve never seen molten lava falling from the sky, that’s about the best way to describe it, I suppose. And if it landed on you,’ I slapped myself on my bare arm, ‘you’ll get –‘

‘Boils!’· That was Alison – she was really with us now. They all looked, well, kind of excited, like detectives successfully uncovering one clue after another that would answer a mysterious case.

I fed them another one. ‘Now let’s do the Red Sea,’ I said. ‘First of all, it’s not the Red Sea – that’s been wrongly translated into English. The Hebrew is yam suf, which means ‘sea of reeds’.· That’s a marshy area just to the north east of the Delta region of the Nile, where the Israelites were. It was easy enough to cross if you were on foot but an army on horseback and in chariots had no chance. They’d get stuck in the mud. And while they were stuck, something happened that also often occurs after a volcanic eruption or an earthquake under the sea. We mentioned it a couple of days ago. Until recently you’d never have heard of it, but now –‘

‘Tsunami!’ cried Eric. The rest nodded in recognition, recalling the horrific scenes of the Asian disaster the previous December.

’Yep!’ I agreed, nodding. ‘After volcanic eruptions at sea, the water simply withdraws – leaving what had once been deep water as dry land for maybe two or three days. Then – bang! – back it comes in a great wave – a tsunami. Bye-bye Pharaoh, bye-bye Egyptians.’

I paused, enjoying the thoughtful expressions on all of their faces. Alison seemed to be the most animated. She was the one who spoke first. ‘What about the tenth plague?’ she asked. ‘You can’t tell me that a volcano goes around just killing first born children and noticing those houses that have a mark on their doorposts,’ she challenged.

‘Good point,’ I said. ‘This is where I need you to do some thinking. Remember what we said about Hurricane Katrina – or Noah’s flood?· How people often believed that a natural disaster was because the god or gods they believed in were angry with them?’· Those who recalled the discussions nodded.

‘Well, that’s what the Egyptians thought. So they did all their religious stuff, trying to make their god like them again – and none of it worked. The bad stuff just kept happening – not in sequence like in our Exodus story, but all in one go. And eventually it must have occurred to them that maybe it wasn’t their gods who were angry – perhaps it was the god of the people they had enslaved. So they went and asked the Canaanite slaves what they did when their god was mad at them. And what answer do you think they got – remember the Abraham and Isaac story from yesterday?’

‘Oh my God,’ said Darren, as a light seemed to go on in his head. ‘They sacrificed their firstborn,’ he continued in an awestruck voice, gently shaking his head as he spoke.

‘Exactly,’ I went on. ‘So the Egyptian guy takes this news back to Pharaoh who says “Blimey! That’s a bit extreme!” but realises that the situation he and his people are in calls for extreme measures. And so a decree goes out, that everyone is to kill everything that is firstborn: whether it be child, calf or any other animal. And one group of people, who had been slaves for years, said “No way!” and decided to run away that night. And those people,’ I said with a final grand flourish of my arms, ‘were our ancestors, the children of Israel. They escaped into the wilderness, into freedom, and carried with them this story of extraordinary events. And we all know what happens with stories of extraordinary events …’ I said.

‘They get exaggerated,’ said Jess, with a smile.

‘They sure do,’ I said. ‘And this one was pretty big to start with. To those who were there, it must indeed have seemed like God was battering the Egyptians and giving the slaves a chance to escape. That story was told and re-told – usually at times when the people would gather together for big celebrations – like the spring festival, which we’ll talk more about another time. It was at least five hundred years between the events happening and them finally being written down – imagine how much the story grew in that time. All the events that had happened simultaneously were separated by Moses going to visit Pharaoh, just to make the story longer and more exciting to listen to. And those events made such an impression on the people who experienced them and on those who heard the story that they based their whole religion around its message. They believed that what happened to Pharaoh was punishment for having made the Israelites slaves. So over and over again we hear in the Torah that the Israelites should not oppress strangers because they knew what it was like to be oppressed strangers in Egypt. You know what it was like, so don’t do it to anyone else.

‘And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the story of the Exodus – or should I say, one alternative version of it. In the end, we live in a free society and no one can tell us what we have to believe. So you’re free to choose whether you want to believe in a God who behaves like the one in the book of Exodus – rescuing a group of people he likes and punishing the group of people he doesn’t like because they were cruel to them – and seriously messing around with nature in the process. Or you can believe that a frightened group of slaves suddenly saw an opportunity to get themselves and their families out of slavery because of the chaos that is caused by a natural event. Somehow they found the courage to run away – and they found freedom as a result. Where does God fit into that?· Maybe God works in human life by giving us courage to take advantage of such situations. I know which God I believe in, I know which one works for me. You make your choice – that’s what this bar-/bat-mitzvah thing is really all about.’

There was a pause and I added a final thought. ‘I always get myself into trouble when I tell this version of the story – it’s like people think I’m trying to disprove it. But I’m not, I’m really not. What I’m doing is rescuing it from being something improbable and frankly unbelievable and making it possible. When I was the same age as you guys, I walked away from Judaism because my rabbi – an Orthodox rabbi – insisted that I had to believe that what was described in the Torah really happened. And I couldn’t get my head round a God who behaves with such cruelty. But this version works for me: it’s about a people – my people – taking advantage of some extraordinary happenings to free themselves from slavery – and then build a whole religion based on the concept that God wants us to have freedom and justice. And that’s why the twelve-year-old me who didn’t believe what was written in the Torah is teaching you about it as a rabbi now.’

‘Awesome, man!’ said Eric. I wasn’t sure if it was to Josh or to me. Darren actually clapped twice before stopping, realising that maybe that wasn’t an appropriate response. ‘Way to go, Rabbi,’ said Jess, rising to her feet. Or maybe she said ‘I have to go, Rabbi,’ as she had seen one of her friends walk past and figured it was okay to leave. Well, I was done. Almost …

‘One last thing,’ I said. ‘We know that the people leaving Egypt would have been able to see the volcano on the horizon as they left. Anyone know how the bible describes how God led them through the wilderness?’

‘A pillar of fire,’ Darren began, then faded out.

‘By night,’ I continued, ‘and –‘

‘– a pillar of cloud by day,’ concluded Alison.

I smiled to my little group as if to say ‘you choose’ as they gathered their folders and headed thoughtfully to their cabins.

(Never Mind the Bullocks, pp 51-53)

Some thought was given to the possibility that this version of the Exodus story be included in Haggadah b’Chol Dor va-Dor which was produced five years ago. In the end it was omitted, but if you click here you can read the first draft of this alternative telling of the Exodus story that didn’t make it into the Haggadah.

In the end, what actually happened in Egypt three thousand and more years ago is not as important as the consequence of whatever happened: a group of enslaved people discovered freedom and established the concept of liberty at the heart of the religion they developed based on whatever had occurred to their ancestors in Egypt. That should be the emphasis and essence of the Passover Seder that is celebrated throughout the Jewish world.

Chag same’ach!

* ‘Why Am I Here’, Pete Tobias, published April 2012

** ‘Never Mind the Bullocks’, Pete Tobias, published August 2009