The Passover story is real, because it has a real effect on the world
Everyone and everything, from person to nation, crafts a story of where they came from and where they want to go. It isn’t a question of whether our stories are fact or fiction, but rather of how they shape who we are today and want to become tomorrow.
In other words: the stories we tell about our origins are almost never fully backward-looking. Instead, the stories we tell give us permission — and motivation — for our actions of tomorrow.
The great psychologist and philosopher William James was once asked about his belief in God. Born to a well-known theologian, James, fascinated by religious experiences from a young age, used his interest in developmental psychology to understand the effects of religion on our movement throughout the world. His ultimate suggestion: “God is real, for God produces real effect on the world!”
It’s a version of the truth passed down in the Jewish tradition hints at: God and God’s nature depends on our action as partners.
Our stories, then, are powerful for their ability to shape, inspire and change the world both present and future. I’m often asked if I believe in the historicity of the Exodus. This question, while fascinating in the academy, is nearly irrelevant when delving into the greater truths. Our stories are real, for they have a real effect on the world.
It is no mistake that many ancient empires and leaders posited their origins as divine. Stories, as history continuously reiterates, are fundamental to maintaining stratified and hierarchical societies, or rationalizing regional hegemony. It might seem unfortunate that you are at the bottom of the caste system while I am a divine being, goes the reasoning, but truly this is what the gods wanted. It’s not an accident that the setting of the Exodus is a land where Pharaoh himself claimed to be a God.
In the modern world, we tell stories of a fully meritocratic society or our own exceptionalism. If we are successful, we tell ourselves and others, it must be because of our own hard work, discipline and ability.
The nefarious contrapositive of this sentiment being: if one isn’t successful it means that they just haven’t worked hard enough.
In that context, the story our ancestors told centers around our own enslavement and subsequent Exodus from Egypt becomes all the more powerful.
In this story we are neither gods nor descendants of gods. God, as our tradition highlights, actually isn’t present in any one thing but everything. In fact, our story suggests that to pretend to be God is one of the most immoral acts possible.
In this story we begin as slaves, truly understanding what it means to be at the receiving end of the worst of human nature. It is the God who demands justice and morals, the God who created each and every human in God’s own image, that comes to free not only us, but also the entire world from the inherent immoralities ubiquitous in human nature.
In this story we are newly freed slaves who become co-signers of a covenant, ensuring that our experience of subjugation never happens to anyone else. And the story must continue, for in every generation new Egypts pop up, and it is our job to not only tell the story of the Exoduses from Eygpts past and present, but to call for action.
Our story is not perfect. It contains upsetting ideas and sentiments. It can, at times, be too dogmatic or narrow-minded. But the beauty is that our story isn’t finished. The imperfect nature of our story isn’t a reason to shy away, but the opposite. It is all the more reason to grab a pen and join in the writing of the next chapter — attempting to perfect it word by word.
Moshe Daniel Levine is the Senior Jewish Educator at OC Hillel and a Rabbinic fellow at Temple Beth Tikvah. You can read more of his writing here. He can be reached at [email protected].