The Greatest Dig Of All
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
This week's parshah sheet is dedicated to Yerachmiel Don ben Tzipora Chana
(amush). May the merit of the reading and sharing of this week's parshah
sheet provide him with a refuah shlaimah immediately.
It was at the end of four hundred and thirty years, and it was on that very
day that all of the legions of G-d left the land of Egypt. (Shemos 12:41)
I happened to be away for Shabbos, and Motzei Shabbos I picked up a section
of what I had assumed was from the previous week's Jerusalem Post lying
around where I was staying. Amazingly, it did not occur to me, though I had
already read several articles, that the news I was reading was nine months
old, especially since one particular section was about the parshah we just
read that Shabbos, Shemos.
The headline read something to the effect, "Rabbi Denies Exodus Occurred."
At first thought, I had assumed that the article had been prompted by a
return to the story of the Exodus in the upcoming parshios. Only after I
was well into the article did I realize that it was from the previous
Pesach, at which point I looked up at the top of the page and saw the date
of publication: April 16, 2003.
I had to laugh, partly because of how I had been duped, and partly because
of the incredible timing of the mistake. There I was, preparing to write
about Parashas Bo (I write a week in advance of the parshah), and here was
this article was about some Reform rabbi speaking his mind about the lack
of archeological evidence to support the Exodus story.
I read the article and the counterpoints. However, what I didn't quite
understand was why this person's statement was considered such a departure
from Reform Judaism's way of thinking. If they don't accept our fundamental
belief that G-d gave the Torah to the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai in the
year 2448 from Creation, and they don't accept the Oral tradition that has
been handed down from generation to generation, then how could it be
assumed that they accepted the account of the Exodus in the Torah?
Anyhow, the gist of the article was this: If the Exodus from Egypt occurred
as the Torah says, then why isn't there sufficient archeological evidence
to support such an account? Shouldn't there be some archeological trace of
the Jewish people having been in Egypt for hundreds of years [A comment
from an editor: There is and I saw it. In the Valley of the Kings there is
a rock in front of Pharoh's tomb with writing carved on it that says
something to the effect that the Hebrews gave him a lot of trouble and they
left on such and such date, and there was "not one of the seed of Ya'akov
left in the land of Egypt."], and of their miraculous departure from Egypt
and their journeys in the Sinai Desert?
True, Josephus wrote about it in his time as it was well-known that there
was such a miraculous Exodus from Egypt by the Jewish people, a fact that
some were trying to purge in his time. And true, Vilokovsky found papyrus
remains in some museum in the Netherlands that describes the systematic
destruction of Egypt by one "natural" disaster after another. There are
other historical details that only make sense in the context of the Exodus
account, but we'll leave those for now since that is not the point of this
Not good enough. The man wants a significant archeological find. He wants
hard core indisputable PHYSICAL evidence that the Jewish people were in
Egypt, were enslaved, left there because of great miracles and signs
wrought by G-d through some messenger. Prove all that, and then . . . and
then . . . and then what? He'll believe?
You have to admit, it would be convenient if we could dig up something that
said, "Yes, the Jews were here and passed by on their miraculous return to
Eretz Canaan. Oh, you should have seen the looks on the Egyptians' faces
when Aharon turned the Nile river to blood. And that plague of
darkness . . . had them pinned to their seats or stuck standing up while
the Jews made good on hundreds of years of forced labor. However, even the
Plague of the Firstborn (you should have heard those Egyptians screaming!)
did not compare to the way the Egyptians were tossed to and fro by the
waters of the Red Sea, as the Jews looked on with awe from the other side,
safe and sound."
Wouldn't that be nice? Believing in the Exodus then would clearly be a no-
brainer, as easy as believing that the police give us tickets for running
red lights. No need for faith here.
I am Hashem, your G-d, Who has taken you out of the land of Egypt, from the
house of slavery. (Shemos 20:2)
In Parashas Yisro, we will read about the Ten Commandments, the first of
which introduces the Jewish people to G-d. It is an interesting definition
of the Jewish G-d. He could have said, "I am G-d Who made Creation and
everything in it, including you. I give life and take it away, so get with
the program (i.e., Torah) and you will be allowed to live." Could anyone
argue with that line of reasoning?
However, the fact that G-d made Creation and runs it seems to be secondary
to the fact that He freed us from Egyptian bondage. It's as if the unique
relationship we enjoy with the Almighty is predicated on our belief that He
stepped into history on our behalf and took us out of Egypt. Belief in the
Exodus and belief in the unique relationship is one and the same thing.
Not only is belief in the Exodus crucial, but:
The Sefer Mitzvos HaKatan wrote in his explanation of the Positive Mitzvah
of, "I am G-d, your G-d, Who took you out of Egypt," that it means one must
know that, He Who created Heaven and Earth alone controls [the world] above
and below. However, to this he added, "This [mitzvah] is the basis for what
the rabbis teach: At the time of a person's judgment after death, they ask
him, 'Did you anticipate redemption?' (Shabbos 31a). Where is this mitzvah
written? Actually, it comes from this [same mitzvah], for just as, 'I am G-
d, your G-d, Who took you out of Egypt,' means that we are expected to
believe that G-d redeemed us from Egypt, and it also means, 'Just as I want
you to believe that I took you out [from Egypt], I also want you to believe
that I, G-d, your G-d, will gather you in and redeem you in mercy a second
time'." According to what he (Sefer Mitzvos HaKatan) has said, belief in
the future redemption is part of our faith in, "I am G-d, your G-d," and
thus is the first of the Ten Commandments . . . (Ohr Yechezkel, Emunas
HaGeulah, 1960; p. 287)
Thus, belief in G-d is intimately bound up with the concept of the first
redemption from Egypt, and also the Final Redemption for which we now
await. And, the implication can be understood from two directions:
1. If you already believe that the Exodus occurred as the Torah says and
as you should, then you must know that just as it occurred, so too will the
Final Redemption occur. Have faith.
2. If you have difficulty believing in the first Exodus, then know that
just as it takes faith to belief in an Exodus that has yet to occur, in
some cases it takes faith to believe in an Exodus that HAS occurred. And,
just as belief in G-d means believing in something you can't see, then so
must you believe in redemptions you did not and have not yet seen.
In other words, by having belief in G-d and the Exodus from Egypt,
according to the Sefer Mitzvos HaKatan, the Torah is making a comparison
between these two mitzvos and belief in the Final Redemption. The reason is
quite basic: each is proof of the other, and none of them rely upon
On the contrary, when listing the Positive and Negative Mitzvos in Hilchos
Yesodei HaTorah, the Rambam says that there is a mitzvah "to know there is
a G-d." - to know and not just to have faith. This means that there must
exist an intellectual path that one can and must follow at the end of which
is belief in G-d, that is, enough knowledge that one can say, "Yes, there
MUST be a G-d and Torah must be His knowledge and instructions for
mankind." With the exception of a few times in history, belief in G-d is
the reward one receives for having sought Him out, as the Talmud says:
All is in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven. (Brochos 33b).
As we have said on so many occasions before, the Hebrew word for fear and
seeing are the same: yireh. This is because one can't fear that which one
can't see, either physically or mentally. In order to be able to fear G-d,
that is, take Him and His Torah seriously, one has to first know that He is
there. Knowing that He is there and what He wants from us makes belief in
the Exodus quite basic. Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi made this clear to the King of
Kuzar, who converted his kingdom to Judaism as a result.
And the King of Kuzar would have done so regardless of the lack of
archeological evidence to support the psychological and historical proof.
I happened on that very day: G-d took the Children of Israel out of the
land of Egypt, in their legions. (Shemos 12:51)
I had always thought that religion was the opium of the masses, something
that one turned to when they couldn't hack living in the secular world.
Born into a conservative to reform family, my limited Jewish education
didn't allow for belief in much more than that. Torah, whatever it was, was
archaic and just a sentimental link to a Jewish past that was obviously in
the process of giving way to a far more clever and sophisticated Western
secular society. Or so I had thought some 25 years ago.
I wish I could take credit for having taught myself otherwise, but it is
not so. A set of circumstances I certainly did not count on brought me to a
different level of exposure to Torah, and fortunately, in spite of myself,
my mind was open enough to see that Torah was something far more special
than it appears on the outside, to an outsider. To this very day, Shabbos
remains to be one of the most sublime entry points for any secular Jew into
the world of Torah.
Being young enough (and single), I was able to pursue this path with a
single-mindedness and devotion I had rarely applied to anything secular. It
was not that I did not try hard in university, at work, or in sports; Idid.
It is just that people apply themselves to what they are doing based upon
their ability to see the worthiness of doing so, and once having bitten
into Torah, I found myself driven to go farther, and farther, faster and
When I finally left Toronto to attend a yeshivah in Jerusalem's Old City,
it was because I had felt as if I had outgrown the local resources. I had
gone to the Middle East on a different kind of historical dig, one that
took me deeper and deeper into the well-springs of Torah. Taking on mitzvos
was the end result of a long process of research that demanded that I
follow through physically with what I had come to understand
intellectually; they were what I had uncovered upon excavating the Torah
perspective on man and life in this world.
This does not mean that my body did not rebel along the way. Often it did
every step along the way. However, as I moved from the simple but beautiful
wisdom of Pirkei Avos to in-depth Chumash study, and then to Mishnah, and
finally Gemora, resistance became less logical as information entered my
mind and organized itself into a far more profound and logical picture of
life than I knew existed elsewhere. My body was like a stallion broken in
by a benevolent trainer who only wishes to channel its energies.
Did I believe in the Exodus story as told in the Torah? The year before,
not really. The year after, completely. Now, 25 years later, beyond a
shadow of a doubt, which in Hebrew is the word "suffek," which has the same
gematria of the Name Amalek. For, it is Amalek's job to confuse the Jewish
people, to make them doubt G-d and Torah, and to try and convince them that
the Exodus never took place.
I never tried to prove the Exodus story to myself, and I never tried to
convince myself that Torah was from G-d. Indeed, I spent more time trying
to do just the opposite. I simply learned and built up my base of Torah
knowledge until the realities just seemed to follow. The knowledge itself
demanded the belief.
Once, during a teaching session about belief in a particular Torah concept,
a certain (adult) student challenged me in a somewhat argumentative
tone, "Yeah, why do you believe what you do?" hoping that I would respond
with some sort of blind faith answer that they could then attack, which
probably would have had a dramatic negative impact on the other students as
As I prepared to answer the question, I asked myself, "How do I share years
of research and learning with a group of people in five minutes, and expect
them to hear the answer and appreciate it on the same level that I do now?"
And that was my answer, "If you knew what I now know, you would believe it
And it shall be when your son will ask you at some future time, "What is
this?" you shall say to him, "With a strong hand G-d removed us from Egypt
from the house of bondage." (Shemos 13:14)
To this very day, I'm not sure where that answer came from, other than from
Heaven itself. But it was one of the most effective answers I have ever
given, for not only did it disarm the questioner, it said in a few words
what I could not have said in a hour's time. It told them that all I was
teaching was the product of years of in-depth Torah learning, and that my
belief was a function of knowledge, not merely faith. It also told them
that all that stands between them and such a solid belief was not what they
thought they knew, but what they had yet to learn.
How do you argue a point like that?
But this is not a game. It is about beliefs, about the pursuit of truth,
about connecting up with the G-d of Creation before He loses His patience
and cuts us off altogether. Here was a man who calls himself a rabbi,
prepared to rely upon an inaccurate and certainly incomplete science to put
to death a belief system that the entire world requires to exist.
Had the man said, "I have studied Torah with Rashi and all the other major
commentaries and super-commentaries. I have delved into the Mishnah, all of
them, and understand their meaning and intentions. I have learned Talmud,
not just one tractate, but the entire Talmud, both the Babylonian and the
Jerusalem versions, and their ingenious commentaries, and have a good
handle on the big picture they create. I have seen the many midrashim and
have spent many years in the realm of Kabbalah. In short, I have seen all
of Torah, at least as much as we have in our hands today, and quite
frankly, I am not impressed. In truth, it is incoherent, and reveals no
particular genius any more than that which any other intelligent society
might have produced over time, let's say in 2000 years. Little of it
compels me, after my many years of sincere research on all four levels,
Pshat, Remez, Drush, and Sod, to believe in what it has written as actual
fact. Therefore, it does not surprise me that archeological evidence has
yet to surface support of its historical account."
Had he done this and said this, then maybe there would be what to listen
to, what to take seriously. But he didn't, and, he couldn't. Because, had
he worked this approach to the story of the Exodus, his question would be
on the archeologists and their supporters, not on Torah and its supporters.
Questions? Of course there are, many indeed. We still haven't confirmed why
the earth is pock marked with huge craters though no sign of large
asteroids remain for us as proof that they did the dirty work. We have
theories but still lack facts. Stonehenge is still a mystery as well.
Heck, we're still looking for life in outer space though most of the signs
indicate there is none. But we'll spend billions of dollars to prove
otherwise, because our belief is so strong that we can't be the only ones
alive in this vast and awesome universe, and no one says boo.
Questions are good. A little bit of doubt can be healthy, as long as it
forces you to answer it to pursue deeper levels of truth. They are
necessary for faith, and to drive a person to seek out truth through his
mind, not just his eyes. The Greeks lived by the belief that seeing is
believing, but Chanukah came along and taught us that believing is seeing
too. Indeed, as the Leshem points out, the Primordial Light that G-d hid on
the first day of Creation was only hidden from the evil of history, that
is, those people who choose to lead with their eyes, and not with their
Without that light, everyday life is just that - everyday, mundane life.
Then the saying, "what you see is what you get," is true. But for the
person who pursues Torah with the goal of getting to the bottom of it all,
this light reveals that which is hidden from most of the physical world by
the majority of the world. The four-fifths of the Jews who died in this
week's parshah in the Plague of Darkness did so because they also didn't
believe in the Exodus from Egypt as told by the Torah.
As the Sefer Mitzvos HaKatan and the Talmud both imply, it will be quite
the same just prior to the Final Redemption. And the April 16, 2003 edition
of The Jerusalem Post reverberated with just how true both of them were in