Passover Eighth Day Yizkor Sermon - Memory

This is a summary of my extemporaneous remarks on April 30.

Several years ago Rabbi David Wolpe of the Sinai Temple in Los Angeles received instant notoriety for positing in a sermon that the Exodus didn't occur. He didn't say that we should ignore the reading from the Torah and thousands of years of tradition, what he said was that it doesn't matter whether it happened or not. Even if we could prove that the Exodus from Egypt did happen - which we can't since there is no archaeological proof or historical evidence - what matters most is the memory that has been ingrained in us for at least 2,000 years. Just a few weeks ago another scholar - Dr. David Frankel of the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem wrote an essay in which he posited that not all the tribes of Israel were even in Egypt to begin with! Citing evidence from the biblical Book of Chronicles (found at the end of the Jewish Bible) he posits that at least the tribe of Ephraim - whom the book of Genesis says was born to Joseph in Egypt - was always in the land of Israel and fought a a battle even before the rest of the Israelites settled the land of Israel!

The rabbis 2,000 years ago, as the Israelite community was facing destruction at the hand of the Romans, interpreted the Torah and developed a system of religious belief and practice that would enable Judaism to survive. Thanks to their brilliance and innovation we are still Jewish today. The most important thing the rabbis did was to create memory for us that served to unite an inspire us even in the darkest of times. The story of the Exodus of Egypt and the wandering through the desert to reach the Promised Land isn't a historical narrative - necessarily - it really is the story of how God can be active in our lives and how God will always be there for us. All the stories in the Bible teach values and concepts that are central to our Jewish identity. That's why the Exodus story matters.

Three of my grandparents passed away before I was 13. The distinct memories I have of them are few and fleeting. What I remember mostly about them are the stories that have been shared with me from my family over the years. That's how memory gets formed and established - through the repetition of the stories year after year. 

Though it would be remarkable to be able to prove that the Exodus from Egypt and the 40-year wandering in the desert happened, it's not necessary for our Jewish identity. What is most important is to keep telling the story and to imagine every year - as the rabbis command us in the Haggadah - as if we personally left Egypt. May we always be inspired by the memories, the values and the concepts that the rabbis taught us.