Let me tell you what I wish I’d known
When I was young and dreamed of glory
You have no control
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?
And when you’re gone, who remembers your name?
Who keeps your flame?
Who tells your story?
Who tells your story?
Who tells your story?
These words are from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant play, Hamilton. In this final song of the musical, the characters reflect on the fact that the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton is rarely told, despite his incredible accomplishments and contributions to our nation. Very few people knew about Hamilton’s legacy until Miranda told his story through the musical. Now, anyone who has seen the play can inform you about Hamilton’s crucial position in helping George Washington win the Revolutionary War, his economic plan for the burgeoning nation, and of course, his rivalry with Aaron Burr, which ended in a fatal duel.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo, we read the story of the Israelite’s enslavement to the Egyptian Pharaoh. In this Torah portion, God brings the last of the ten plagues upon Pharaoh and the Egyptian people, presumably as a punishment for keeping the Israelites enslaved.
However, if we read the first verse of this Torah portion carefully, we learn that God has an additional reason for sending the plagues: “Adonai said to Moses: ‘Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your children and your children’s children how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them—in order that you may know that I am Adonai.’” In other words, God sends these devastating plagues so the Israelites will remember what God once did on their behalf. God wants them to tell this story.
For 2,000 years, the Jewish people have been doing just that. Each year on Passover, we read from the Haggadah, which comes from Hebrew word l’haggid meaning “to tell.” We sit around our tables and recite the story of the Exodus from Egypt, our story. Storytelling is a major part of what it means to be Jewish.
For people who believe the Bible is the literal word of God, and that every event in the Bible is true and accurate, the discussion could stop here. However, for others who believe the Bible was written by human beings, and that it might not be historically accurate, telling the story of the exodus from Egypt is more complicated than teaching history.
We can verify the facts of the Revolutionary War. We have letters and documentation of Hamilton’s life and legacy. After all, the events of his life took place only 300 years ago. We have a harder time verifying the events of the Bible. According to historians and archaeologists, it is impossible to know whether a group of people called the Israelites experienced slavery in Egypt, and many say it likely did not happen. We do know of a group called the Apiru (which sounds a lot like “Hebrew”) people who lived as a marginalized social class in Egypt in the 13th century BCE, but that is the best evidence we have. If the Bible is not a historical document, why should its stories matter to us?
This is one of the main challenges for liberal Jews, and one worth pondering: Why do we tell and retell the story of an event that likely never happened? The answer comes from an examination of the difference between history and truth. Robert Alter, the eminent Bible scholar of the 20th century, writes: “As odd as it may sound at first, I would contend that prose fiction is the best general rubric for describing the biblical narrative. Or, to be more precise…we can speak of the Bible as historicized prose fiction.” In other words, events contained in the Bible are often fictional but described as though they are historical events. This leaves us with the question: If the biblical narrative is not historical, can it still be true?
Fiction can be truer than reality. Myths and legends are often much more memorable than works of history. The values we learn through stories become part of our identity. Think about your favorite television show, or about the novels that shape generations. These stories are fictional, yet we grow attached to them—we celebrate the accomplishments of the characters, we mourn their losses, we are shaped by their stories.
All the more so with the story of the exodus from Egypt contained in the Hebrew Bible, because it is our story. It helps us understand who we are: people who empathize with the vulnerable and oppressed, people who fight for freedom, and people who understand the danger of autocracy. We know that we must be kind to the strangers in our midst, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. In this story, we read about the origins of the people of Israel, and we see ourselves as the descendants of this rabble-rousing, revolutionary group, who trusted in God as they made their way from enslavement toward liberty. The story of the exodus from Egypt might not be historical, but it is true. And its legacy is our inheritance.
The question posed in Hamilton: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” is not one that would ever occur to the Jewish people. No matter the time, no matter the place, we always tell our story.