WORF: These are our stories. They tell us who we are.
BA’EL: …Are they true?
WORF: I have studied them all of my life, and find new truths in them every time.
— “Birthright,” Star Trek: The Next Generation
Here’s a radical thought: does the story of the Exodus and its miracles — including this week’s splitting of the Sea of Reeds — need to be true in order to be meaningful?
Biblical literalists, who take the Torah to be G?d’s word, see the text as the ultimate truth and the miracles as G?d’s handiwork. Modern critics see the Torah as a unique document compiled from numerous sources, and explain the miracles in terms of natural events. But both may be missing the point.
“Many readers of this parashah [portion] wonder about the historicity of the Exodus story,” writes Sharon R. Keller in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, saying that the tale is essentially a people’s memory of their collective past. “The historical accuracy of the account is unimportant, for it has no bearing on the story’s core message or its themes.”
Although the Exodus is a specifically Jewish story, its themes — liberation, deliverance, freedom from oppression — are universal. Asking whether they are true-with-a-capital-T is like asking if the tales of Camelot were true, or Odysseus, or Harry Potter. They are true not because they happened, but because they touch something inside of us; they give us a glimpse of a bigger world than the one in which we may find ourselves at our worst moments. They are examples of what we can be as our best selves.
And that’s important, as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes in Essays on Ethics: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible. “Storytelling is the great vehicle of moral education,” says the rabbi. “It was the Torah’s insight that a people who told their children the story of freedom and its responsibilities would stay free for as long as humankind lives and breathes and hopes.”
May each of us merit to tell, and live, that story.