What would you pack if you ran away from home?
This week, in the portion called ‘B’Shalach’, the great escape known as The Exodus continues, and the Hebrew runaways famously wade in the waters of the Sea of Reeds. (This is also one of the most infamous mistranslations and cartographic errors in biblical history –never meant to be read as the ‘Red Sea’).
No matter what one imagines the Exodus to be – historical, mythical, both or neither – the powerful image of a human mass fleeing towards freedom chased by soldiers is painfully familiar from war torn areas worldwide. And, like many modern attempts to personalize the stories of mass migrations – we focus on what may have been the plight of individuals, capturing the image of one person, or one family, allowing intimate details to tell the bigger, often-incomprehensible tales of our lives.
In this story, we are focusing on one word, describing either what the Hebrews packed along, 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’, and ‘bearing weapons’. In 2007, Jews with weapons are not uncommon (mostly Israeli soldiers but also Sandra Froman, the new president of the NRA – a Jewish woman!) but it is startling to think of this image in the translations and imaginations of Bible readers prior to 1948. Later on in the exodus story, once they cross the sea, Miriam leads the people in song, and drums accompany her. It is comforting to know that musical instruments, and not just weapons (and matza) are what our ancestral runways packed for the road, functional and symbolic at the same time.
But there is another way to translate the word ‘Chamushim” – reading it not from the root for ‘weapon’ but from the word for the number ‘Five’ – ‘Chamesh’. Interestingly, various Jewish commentaries and translators stayed away from the weapons motif and went with the breakdown of the people into units of five. For instance, the Pseudo Jonathon translates this verse as:
“…And every one of the sons of Israel left Egypt, with five children each. “
Yet another interpretive translation is that of the 11th Century CE commentator Rashi, who quotes Rabbinic sources:
‘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 oral tradition, the Hebrews are not leaving with weapons – they are leaving with diminished numbers and much loss. How many prefer to stay behind in the familiar realities, even if oppressive? and how many choose to leap into the unknown?
One of out five, or one plus five, with weapons and with drums, the heroes and heroines of this ancient journey sing their way across a Sea of Reeds, encounter Manna, thirst for water, and win their first battle, all within four chapters. Next stop: Mount Sinai.
And we, on our ongoing coming out into Self – what do we pack for the journeys across the threshold of new possibilities? And what or who, this time round, do we leave behind?