Parashat Shemot: naming the past honestly with all its inglorious realities

In his Chumash, Rabbi Dr Hertz comments on the story of the exodus of the Jewish slaves from Egypt, and, as part of his argument for the historical reality of such an experience says “What people would invent for itself so ignoble a past? A legend of such tenacity, representing the early fortunes of a people under so unfavourable an aspect, could not have arisen save as a reflection of real occurrences”.

His comment brings home to us the truth of the way we write history. Written most often by the winners, it us usually a tool for the glorification of our past. Rarely do we record the miserable realities of hardship or pain, the mundanity of grinding poverty, the banality of living simply to survive – instead we tend to cast a glowing light on our past, speak of the golden ages when everything was apparently so much better than it is now, ascribe attributes and events to show our antecedents fitting an image we feel they should have.

Only the Jews it seems, record our history in all its embarrassing baseness. We record the anger of God against us, as well as God’s redemption of our people. We record our lowly origins, our family breugess’, our bad behaviour as well as our good

.  Reading the Hebrew bible we find real people emerging from the narrative, people in bad moods, people who are afraid or selfish, who favour one child over another or who can’t quite let go of a bad habit. We meet character traits in our ancestors that we can recognise easily today, the challenges that face us now can be seen to have been faced before. We are unusual in that our stories about our past show the meanness, the sadness, the destitution, the low social status. Our history is too important to us to leave to the myth makers – we have to have it recorded as it was, and we have to repeat it year on year in public, reminding ourselves of the shortcomings in our less than glorious past.

It is because we have recognised the importance of our history, its centrality and its impact on our present that we have continued to be Jews. It is because we know and reprise our origins that we are able to develop our covenantal relationship with God. There are no secrets, no glosses, and no skeletons in the cupboard which might suddenly appear and throw us off balance. And with the stories of our past of slavery and poverty, of ancestral wrongs and religious dead ends, we tell the other stories too – of those who listened and heard the presence of God, of amazing selflessness, of faith and courage, of journeys into the unknown leading to blessing and covenant.

The word ‘Shemot’ means ‘names’. We will be reading the names of those who went down to Egypt with Jacob, in preparation for telling the stories of Exodus, the journey into the desert, the leap of faith into the future. Before we can go forward, we must root ourselves in our history, before reading of the exodus we remember how we got to where we are. Jewish tradition is very clear that our present is rooted in our past, and who we will be must emerge from who we have been.

Beginning to read the second book of Torah, with its sense of new beginnings, of God returning into history, of a great journey about to be made, we remember the weight of our history even as we start a new year in the secular calendar. We may be closing the door on another year, but all that has gone on in this last year should not be forgotten by us. We are the people who remember things as they really were, not as we should like them to have been. We are the people who are not afraid to write a history that does not glorify us, whose heroes have faults, whose stories expose problems. As the New Year promises a new future, remember to honour the past by remembering it as it really is.

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