This is a slightly revised version of a D'var Torah I gave on the Shabbat that was the last day of Pesach in 5782 (2022).
Right before Pesach in 2022, a bunch of people mentioned to me an article they had seen from the New York Times by Rabbi Sharon Brous. Her piece referenced a book known as the Slave Bible, or as its inside title page says “Select Parts of the Holy Bible for the Use of the Negro Slaves in the British West India Islands.” This version of the Bible was published in 1807, and it was used in the Caribbean islands under British rule at that time to teach slaves to read and to teach them Christianity. As Rabbi Brous writes, this Bible is unique in that it has deleted the entire story of the Exodus. It jumps from Joseph’s uniting with his brothers all the way to the revelation of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai, and then from there to the sternest and most warning parts of Deuteronomy, and that’s it for the Torah.
There are in the Deuteronomy section brief references to having been brought out of Egypt but no mention at all of being slaves there. So this was truly a Bible without an Exodus, and a Bible suffused in fact with justifications of slavery from various points in Genesis, as well as other parts of the Old Testament and New.
Rabbi Brous asks us to imagine how it’s possible to have a text without Exodus, without slavery and oppression and liberation, and call it a Bible. What kind of biblical religion could really be true to the Bible without that story -- it’s absurd. Yet that was the Bible and the biblical religion, quote-unquote, being fed to slaves in at least part of the English-speaking world into the 1800s.
After the third person mentioned this Bible to me, I found myself putting into focus an idea that’s been eating slowly at me for a while. I found myself thinking that there is a mirror-image Bible, not exactly a Bible but a book based on the Bible, and in this particular Bible the Israelites are continually being redeemed, over and over.
In this Bible, every mention of slavery and Pharaoh disappears quickly into a celebration of rescue and protection from not just oppression but hunger and pain and disilusionment.
In this version, God operates the world in every moment with compassion for every last creature, and has in every moment since the beginning of time, and God never naps from this concern and care for a moment, and never lets any creature fail to find at least a word to say or sing to describe this world.
In this version, the Sea is not a dangerous thing to try and cross, but a gushing out of gratitude.
In this version of the Bible, even our bones -- the least articulate part of our body, the part of us that can’t see out into the word at all -- even our bones proclaim Mi Chamocha, the words of the Song we sang at the Sea -- "Adonai Mi Chamocha, Who is like you, who rescues the powerless from the one who is stronger."
This Bible, where the liberation from slavery in Egypt is amplified and exaggerated -- it is the Siddur. It is our prayerbook. I’ve just been paraphraising for you most of pages 104-105 in our version of the Siddur, the prayer we call Nishmat Kol Chai after its first words, “the breath of all that lives.”
In recent years with all that has been happening in the world, I have been especially fascinated by what I will call the Nishmat Bible, which is the opposite of the Slave Bible. Part of my fascination is the flat-out contradiction between some of the words of the Nishmat prayers and what’s in our Torah. I mean the Torah is very clear that while Shifrah and Puah and Miryam and Yocheved were saving the lives of babies one by one, and while Moshe was taking matters into his own hands quite literally, God had to be reminded of the Israelites after some long period of time, finally snapping into action and setting a bush to burning. I mean: Is that the God who, in the words of the Nishmat prayer, “does not sleep and does not slumber”?
But that’s not even what fascinates me; it’s not a point of theology. What I’m amazed at is our ancestors of the year 1550, or pick another year like that, who sang these words in a medieval world where they had been oppressed for hundreds of years, who had a tradition of singing these words for least six or seven centuries and possibly more than a thousand years, when most Pharaohs in that time were not defeated and the many Jewish exits were not to promised lands.
The Jews of 1550 sang these words every Shabbat against all evidence to the contrary. What was that like? What did it feel like? What kinds of thoughts were they thinking about these words? Even as late as 1550, Jews had no idea that within a hundred years there might be the beginning of some kind of liberation in this world, in Amsterdam or Brazil or the North American colonies. And for most Jews in most places even in 1650 or 1750 or 1850 this was still the case. And yet they sang this Bible where “from the beginning of time to the end” without exception every moment God is taking care of them and “besides You we have no God who redeems and saves.”
I’m just gobsmacked. I can see in 1947 naming a ship Exodus, with Jews in peril still in Europe and in Palestine but it seems like a time that you could feel is those first chapters of the book of Exodus, where something may be coming and you’re in that fight.
I can see in churches in the 1950s and 1960s telling and singing about the Exodus, with protests and actions gaining energy if not always gaining momentum. I can see how in the 1960s and ‘70s and ‘80s we made “let my people” go a real watchword in solidarity with our people in the Soviet Union, when there was already liberation for Jews in this country and the State of Israel.
It’s easy to see how you make the Exodus a present story when the moves are happening and it’s more than a midwife here and an upstander there but history itself seems in the making.
It’s easier to see how you tell this story after we relocated to America, not only a land of freedom but a land that sees itself as another version of the Exodus story.
But for centuries and centuries our ancestors sang these songs, and made the already Exodus-filled Torah into a turbocharged Exodus Bible through the Siddur. Especially on Shabbat when they sang Nishmat, but also every regular day morning and night. Twice a day Mi Chamocha, the Song of the first moment of freedom. In the morning every weekday it’s “protector and savior for their children in every generation”; in the evening every night it’s the power “Who redeems us from the hand of every earthly power.”
What was it like to sing the Nishmat Bible? How did they do it? When there was no end in sight to oppressions, to crimes against humanity; when there was no debate and no media to show anyone else what was happening to us -- our ancestors kept being the stewards of the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim, the Exodus. Against all the evidence of the actual world. There was no way anyone could have pulled a Slave Bible over them. The Siddur is even more Exodus than the Torah itself.
(And of course, the Slave Bible was no match for the people over whom it was lorded in the 1800s.)
It is those centuries and centuries of stewarding this story, protecting it and retelling it and sometimes adding to it and exaggerating it in profound ways and just crazy ways, that have made other Exodus stories and realities possible in the past centuries. We talk about the power of stories, but it’s more than the story and its content. A story stored up and charged with spiritual energy for that long becomes more powerful at some point than any powerful tyrant or tyranny. That’s what I mean each time I hand the Torah scroll to a BMitzvah and say: You can feel all the noise and energy of our ancestors talking about it; their energy is in here and when you add that up it’s just so much power. Enough to power our liberations in Israel and here, the first modern revolutions, and lest we forget the dramatic fall of the Iron Curtain and the collapse three decades ago of the longest and widest single brutal system of oppression in human history. So many have understood these as Exodus stories.
As real as the Slave Bible was in its time, it is really no match. At an interfaith gathering during Pesach one year, our congregation’s friend Olga Tines, the music minister at the New Fellowship Baptist Church, talked about the power of the Exodus in her own legacy as an African-American. She reminded us that Christianity was not the religion that her people brought with them from Africa to North America, but once the white slaveholders began to use Christianity they couldn’t keep those Exodus parts quiet. And like us, the slaves created a hyper-Exodus-Bible of song and prayer, in spirituals like “Go Down Moses” and in sermons. And things happened in the real world because of that, and when other things happened they had faith already because the liberation of slaves was a real thing.
I know it seems like we have discharged some of the energy in the Exodus story. There is so much Pharoah, isn’t there; he keeps coming back. I don’t have to recite the topical litany. A couple of years ago I was working with one of our BMitzvah kids, Benjamin, and we were studying another part of the Torah, the story of Noach, and Benjamin’s view was that we have not advanced at all since the time of the biblical Flood.
And I tried to come back to him with the scholar Steven Pinker and his objective, statistical study The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. I don’t know if Ukraine or Burma or Afghanistan changes the calculus but Pinker said the world is less violent and more peaceful than ever before. Benjamin was having none of it.
I’m not blaming him. To make the world more free takes empirical things but it doesn’t happen without stories and without being captured back into those stories. That’s why we need more Exodus even when we might not entirely be feeling it.
If our ancestors for hundreds and hundreds of years, in their situation that was more like Israelite slaves than like anyone else in the story -- if they could keep singing the Nishmat Bible and studying the Exodus story, we certainly can from our position on the other side of the Sea as modern Jews. We can -- with our memories of the past century or two in our own lives and the lives of our families. This is not a time to go mellow on Exodus, but to crank it higher. And not just talk about Pharoah and not just about midwives and sprouts, but the splitting Sea and the full-on redemption out ahead.
That’s why we’re here as Jews. You can’t cut those things out of the Bible, and if anything as a Jew you have to multiply them. Somehow, we were the first people who had this story of the Exodus, of Yetziat Mitzrayim. We’ve had it the longest, it changed us and it’s changed the world already. It’s our job in the world to be stewards of this story, pour our energy into it no matter what is happening, and keep bringing it out over and over. And, as we say at the Seder, everyone who uses the Exodus to tell more and more stories is to be praised.