/ BY RABBI JOSHUA HELLER //  SPECIAL FOR THE AJT //

 

Rabbi Joshua Heller

When you are preparing for a trip, what do you pack first?  Some people start with clothes. Others focus on accessories, shoes or toiletries. Still others worry most about ensuring that their electronic devices are charged and ready to go.

 

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What we pack tells a lot about who we are.

When the Israelites left Egypt, they too had to decide what to bring, when they had but a single night to leave their homes and begin a journey to the Promised Land.

Over the course of several chapters, the Torah tells us what they brought, and their packing list offers some lessons for us as Jews in the modern world.

Last week’s portion, Bo hints at two items on their manifest. We are told that that they brought their as-yet unleavened dough with them, the simplest nourishment possible, slung over their shoulders as food for the road (Ex. 12:34).

However, the very next verse tells us that they also took great wealth with them.  G-d commanded the Israelites to “borrow” gold and silver utensils from their Egyptian neighbors as they were leaving.

The Egyptians, eager to see the end of the plagues, gave them great riches, even with the knowledge that the Israelites would not return. The Israelites bore this treasure with them as they departed.

In this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, we see three other items on the packing list, two explicit and one implied. We are told that the Israelites left Egypt “Chamushim”- armed (Ex. 13:18).  One can only imagine what types of weapons this rag-tag group had brought with them from Egypt.

Indeed, G-d was concerned that the first sight of war would dishearten them.  Nevertheless, there were those who focused on weapons because they saw the need for self-defense as primary.

Moses, however, has a different agenda – carrying out a sacred promise. Joseph, on his deathbed, had asked the Israelites to promise that they would bring his bones with them out of Egypt.

The Mechilta, one of the most ancient commentaries on Exodus, notes that while the rest of the Israelites were collecting gold and weapons, Moses was engaged in fulfilling this promise, to seek Joseph’s bones. The ark containing Joseph’s bones accompanied the Israelites through the desert, as a reminder of history, of ancestors, and of the sacred promises of tradition.

Finally, the Israelites cross the Red Sea, and afterwards Miriam and the other women sing and dance with drums.  (Ex.  15:20)

The commentators (including Mechilta) note that this was a sign of great faith and vision on their part.  While others were worrying about bringing food, weapons, or wealth, they knew that with G-d guiding them, there would be great miracles and cause for celebration, and so they packed drums and dancing shoes!

We can see this ancient packing list, the items that the Israelites carried with them, as a metaphor for the baggage that we carry, and that carries us, through life.  It reflects our motivations and priorities in our personal and communal Jewish lives.

Some of us, like the Israelites with the dough on their shoulders, are concerned about whether we, or those around us, have sufficient bread for the next meal. It is hard to consider life’s big questions when one is worried about the most basic necessities.

Others are like the Israelites who gathered gold and silver. They focus most intently on the bottom line, whether it be in shekels, dollars or cents.

Still others are like those who brought weapons. They see the Jewish journey in terms of offense and defense, enemies and allies, and define their primary agenda in terms of physical or cultural warfare with those who might seek to harm us.

Then there are those among us who are like Moses, transporting Joseph’s bones. We carry, and are carried by, the traditions.  Each footstep forms a link from ancestors to our descendants. Each action, each mitzvah, is the fulfillment of ancient promises.

Finally, there are our Miriams, who look for opportunities to sing and dance, to rejoice and celebrate the miracles of life.

I would guess that each reader of these comments identifies with one, or likely several, of the items on this spiritual packing list, and many of us have set our own personal or organization agenda accordingly.

The most powerful message of these chapters, however, is that as a complete Jewish people, we need all the items on our packing list. We stand together at the shores of the sea, vistas of freedom before us.

We need those are concerned about meeting basic human needs, about physical defense in a dangerous land and those who tend to dollars and cents. We also need those who are guardians and advocates for our tradition, and those who remind us to sing and dance.

What did you bring out of Egypt?

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