Don’t Leave Egypt Without It
01/11/11
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

Candlelighting: 4:33 p.m.
Torah Reading: Exodus 13:17-17:16
Haftarah: Judges 4:4-5:31
Sabbath Ends: 5:37 p.m.

Here’s my vote for the most memorable marketing line of the 20th century: “The American Express card: Don’t leave home without it.” It prompts an excellent question: What don’t you leave home without? I exclude here such necessities as clothes, wallet, keys, and even a cell phone. I mean the optional stuff that you would feel “naked” without. My son, Dr. Joel Hoffman, reminds me that some people pack guns, whereas neither he nor I leave home without a pen and a book.

In this week’s portion, the Israelites leave Egypt, their home (for better and for worse) for 430 years [Ex.12:40]. They leave so quickly, they have no time even to bake bread. Yet they somehow manage to leave with chamushim [Ex 13:18], a Hebrew word implying that they carried something else. What was it?

The Mekhilta, a second-century Midrash, is quite sure chamushim means “armed.” Knowing they would meet enemies along the way, they brought some sort of weapon with them. Rashi concurs: where else would they have found the means to fight Amalek, Sichon, Og and the Midianites?

Yet the Israelites hardly seem armed when they get to the Red Sea, so Tosafot offers a second explanation. They brought food. They left in Nisan, after all, and the manna didn’t fall until Iyar, a month away. Anticipating the desert, they brought something to eat in the interim.

But that answer has its own problems. Would you set out on a multi-year trek through the wilderness with food for just one month? Only if you knew God would help you when the month was up. But the same God who wanted to help you next month would surely help you immediately. So Kli Yakar proposes a third solution. Yes, chamushim means armed, but not with weapons of war. The Israelites left with an ark in which the Shechinah dwelled. They were armed with God’s presence among them.

Unfortunately, they brought something else. We get a glimpse of it by looking at the old English word “laden,” meaning “loaded with,” another term for carrying, but implying “carrying a lot.” Whether food or arms, for example, the Israelites surely took as much as they could. And whoever was carrying the ark would tell you it was heavy.

But laden has a negative connotation too, captured in the expression “laden down.” As backpackers will readily attest, sometimes we leave home with extra baggage that we don’t need at all; it simply loads us down. The Israelites were not only laden with arms, food, and the ark; they were laden down with something else: the slave mentality. That is why, whenever the journey got hard, the people beseeched Moses to take them back to Egypt.

We should alter the original question, then. It is not just what we never leave home without because we wisely choose to take it with us. Equally important, and rarely confronted, is what we never leave home without even though we do not recognize we are carrying it.

Like the Israelites, we too are slaves — to old habits, fears, and anxieties. If we do not come to terms with them, we will find ourselves not just laden, but laden down. It is one thing to leave home [as I do] laden with books and pens; it is another to head off laden down with expectations that whenever I enter the train, plane, or subway, I am duty-bound to read it all, or write a complete article for one of these weekly newspaper columns.

Laden can easily become laden down. We take what we take, after all, because we believe it will be useful. It is only one short step to the faulty conclusion that if we do not use it completely, we have failed our responsibility. There is nothing wrong with taking work home from the office. There is everything wrong with concluding that if you do not do it all, you have failed.

I like Kli Yakar’s idea. At least metaphorically, we can take God’s presence with us. With God ever before us, we can be reminded of what really matters in life. We do not need all the weapons of war in the world, or even food for the entire trip. We need only bring what we can, do what is reasonable, and trust God to keep us going the rest of the way.

Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, co-founder of Synagogue 3000 and professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at the Hebrew Union College, is the author of “My People’s Prayer Book,” winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Modern Jewish Thought and Experience.

Last Update:

01/11/2011 - 13:28

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