When my older daughter was in fifth grade, her teachers conceived what they thought was a great idea. Hoping to enlarge the meaning of Thanksgiving, the children were instructed to assemble a bag of artifacts from their family’s “country of origin.” On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, each child was to dress to represent the culture of that country, present their bag of tricks, and place a pushpin on a world map on the country they “came from.” My first thought was: how can the African American kids do this? I was caught off guard by my daughter’s distress and anger. She asked acerbically: Do I do Russia, which Grammy’s family left because of pogroms? Or do I do Germany, which Grandma left after Kristallnacht? Should I dress up as a Cossack or a Nazi? On that Wednesday, one parent confided to me: This was tough for my son. We’re five generations in America. We have no idea where our ancestors came from. Our cultural icon is the golden arches of McDonalds.
We all want to know where we come from. What could be more natural? Parshat Ki Tavo describes a ceremony for the Israelites entering the Land of Israel to perform that acknowledges their roots. Here, succinctly, is the Jewish foundational story of our origins -- so succinct that it found its way into the Passover haggadah.
My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us. They imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. (Deuteronomy 26:5-9)
But what do the scholars say? Here, as briefly as possible, are three academic theories about ancient Israelite origins:
First: The conquest described in the Book of Joshua happened in the 13th century B.C.E. William F. Albright, John Bright, and G. Ernest Wright are proponents of this view based on excavations of Lachish and Hazor. But Kathleen Kenyon excavated Jericho itself and found no evidence of destruction even near that period in history. The second theory is known as the Infiltration Theory, and is championed by Albrecht Alt and Martin Noth. They explain that 12 semi-nomadic tribes entered Canaan from another area at the time of the “Conquest” and settled in the land. Because they had ethnic affinities, they were able to coalesce into one nation: Israel. A third theory, the Peasant Revolt Theory, was offered by G.E. Mendenhall and is based largely on the Amarna letters. It holds that there was no displacement or movement of the population and no entry from without. Rather, native peasants in Canaan withdrew from the oppressive regimes of city-states ruled by overlords who oppressed them. Having withdrawn, they formed a nation.
So did we come from Egypt? Or were we indigenous to the Land of Israel? As scholars continue to marshal evidence, and debate, this much I can say: the story of the Exodus and our origins in oppression and slavery, the magnificent redemption at the Reed Sea, and the spectacular Revelation at Sinai form the troika of ideas, symbols, and ideals that have fueled us for three millennia: Creation (of not only the universe, but the nation Israel), Revelation of Torah, and Redemption (a past redemption that serves as a paradigm for the future).
These three themes -- Creation, Revelation, Redemption -- permeate Judaism. They surround the Shema in the morning and evening prayers. They are echoed in the three pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. They define our religious-history: Creation is our past, Revelation (Torah) is our present, Redemption is the future we long for and work toward.
Coming from the tar pits of Egypt, we are schooled to empathize with those who suffer, who are repressed, whom injustice holds back. Torah reminds us frequently: We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt (Deuteronomy 6:21) -- we know the pain of slavery. Receiving Torah at Sinai teaches us the binding power of sacred text, interpreted and reinterpreted in every generation, guiding us in finding answers to the most perplexing moral questions we face, and offering ethical values to improve life for ourselves and others. Experiencing the Redemption at the Reed Sea, we know that miracles (however we define miracles) can happen, and that God (however we conceive God) is an integral part of changing the course of our lives for good. Keeping hope alive is so often crucial. When we seek redemption we can remember that it is possible. And not just for us -- for everyone.
If we can truly absorb the values that Creation, Revelation, and Redemption hold for us, so that they ooze out the pores of our skin (which is to say: shape our worldview and inform our choices and actions) then we will be fulfilling our mission that you shall be, as [God] promised, a holy people to the Lord your God (Deuteronomy 26:19).
Fifth-graders are not the only ones curious to know whence they come. Alex Haley touched a deep nerve in the human psyche when he published Roots in 1976 and made Kunta Kinte a household name. Torah teaches us that our roots are less in time and location than they are in ethical values and spiritual goals. These are the ethics from which we come, and to which we continually try to return.
Where do you come from? Where are you headed?
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman