Religion & Beliefs

What Would You Pack If You Ran Away From Home?

For the audio version, click here. To subscribe to this podcast, click here. This week, in the portion called “B’Shalach,” the great escape known as the Exodus continues, and the Hebrew runaways wade in the waters of the Sea of … Read More

By / February 2, 2007
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For the audio version, click here. To subscribe to this podcast, click here.

This week, in the portion called “B’Shalach,” the great escape known as the Exodus continues, and the Hebrew runaways wade in the waters of the Sea of Reeds. (It is not the “Red Sea” – that is also one of the most infamous mistranslations in biblical history.) No matter what you imagine the Exodus to be – historical, mythical, both or neither – the powerful image of a mass of humans fleeing towards freedom while being chased by soldiers is painfully familiar, as we see this today in war-torn areas worldwide. Like many modern attempts to personalize the stories of mass migrations, we focus on the plight of individuals, capturing the image of one person or one family. Sometimes intimate details can most effectively portray the bigger, often incomprehensible tales of our lives. In this story, we focus on one word which describes what the Hebrews brought along on their journey, and/or who they left behind.

Exodus 13:18: “But God led the people about, by the way of the wilderness by the Red Sea; and the children of Israel went up armed out of the land of Egypt” (JPS Bible).

The Hebrew word “chamushim” is most often translated as “armed,” “harnessed,” “equipped for battle,” or “bearing weapons.” Though many Jews today carry weapons (I’m thinking of Israeli soldiers but also Sandra Froman, the new president of the NRA – a Jewish woman!), Bible readers prior to 1948 may have found this concept startling. But weapons may not have been the only things that they carried. Later in the story, after they cross the sea, Miriam leads the people in song, accompanied by drums. It is comforting to know that our ancestral runaways packed musical instruments, and not just weapons (and matza), for the road.
But there is another way to translate the word “chamushim.” It could also be derived from the word for the number five: “chamesh.” Many Jewish commentaries and translators use this translation, suggesting that the Hebrews were divided into groups of five. For example, the Pseudo-Jonathan translates the verse this way: “…and every one of the sons of Israel left Egypt, with five children each." The 11th century commentator Rashi, who quotes Rabbinic sources, has another interpretation: “Only one of five Hebrews left Egypt, while the other four, who refused to leave, died during the three days of darkness.” According to this version, the Hebrews are not leaving with weapons, they are leaving in diminished numbers. How many preferred to stay behind in familiar territory, even if death awaited them? How many chose to leap into the unknown? One of out five, or groups of five, with weapons and with drums, the heroes and heroines of this ancient journey sing their way across the Sea of Reeds, discover Manna, thirst for water, and win their first battle, all within four chapters. Next stop: Mount Sinai. What do we pack for our own journeys across the threshold of new possibilities? And what or who, this time around, do we leave behind?