WHAT WILL YOU TAKE?

In January, when we read the Exodus story as part of our weekly Torah cycle, I posed a question to my congregation during a sermon: What would you take with you on your way out of Egypt?

Imagine that you are a slave. Moses has already told all the Hebrews to be at the ready. As instructed, you eat the Passover sacrifice with your walking stick by your side.

Pharaoh consents to let your people go, in his agony and fury after the death plague. But Pharaoh has agreed to release you before. (He is the kind of leader who can’t be counted on for any consistency in policy or decision.) So while his answer is “yes,” you run for your life. But first, you grab…

What?

This is not an idle question. More recent ancestors – many of our grandparents or great-grandparents – had to leave their homes suddenly, after Kristallnacht, a pogrom, or an expulsion, on the assumption that they would never be able to return. In the last few months, fellow Americans, in the face of floods, wild fires, mudslides, and hurricanes, have had to pack up and leave their homes suddenly, knowing that their house and possessions might well be destroyed.

At moments like this, you realize a truth that we sometimes honor with mere lip service: “stuff” doesn’t matter. It’s life that matters. It’s time and love and free will that matter. It’s people who really matter.

Over the course of two Torah portions, the Torah tells us about the few items that our ancestors brought out of Egypt. Most famously, they brought matzah. The Israelites needed food, but they didn’t wait for their dough to rise. To this day, many people trade or postpone their freedom for the sake of more or better material possessions. The Israelites did not make that mistake.

Moses fulfilled a promise and carried Joseph’s bones back to the land of Israel, as Joseph had demanded of the Children of Israel on this deathbed. The Israelites brought out gold and silver, reparations from their neighbors after centuries of slavery. One traditional commentary explains that while the Israelites took what was rightfully theirs, Moses showed exceptional nobility, transporting something from which he could have no personal or material gain. Physically, he took bones. Spiritually, he carried honor, tradition, love of the land of Israel, and loyalty to its people.

The next category of items transported by the Israelites is not revealed until after the trauma of watching the Egyptian army close in on them and the wonder of watching the Red Sea part to enable their escape. Once the Hebrews crossed safely between two walls of water and saw their would-be captors drowned in the sea, Miriam and the women of Israel sang and danced and played their tambourines.

I was fleeing for my life, and I brought … a tambourine?

The Israelite women teach us that we need to prepare not just for disaster, but for joy. What will you do if you prevail? How can you get ready for success? What might you carry with you to give you hope and courage – even, and perhaps especially, when the future is uncertain?

A popular thought experiment (and interview question) is: “What would you want to have with you if you were stranded on a desert island, and you could only bring three things?” Another, perhaps morbid, question is: “If your house were on fire, what would you grab?” Both these questions clarify your values. Both will get people talking around a dinner or conference table.

Another exercise is a game that kids play: “I’m going on a picnic, and I
am bringing….” It is similar to these other thought experiments in that it enumerates items. But it is also significantly different. In this game, what you can bring is limited only by memory and imagination. People typically begin by naming foods for the body and soon add items that nourish the soul. Even fanciful objects are included.

The picnic game is more true to life (more typical of how life usually unfolds) than the desert island scenario or the scary story of a house on fire – or any other exodus. You go around in a circle. You take turns. You pay attention to what others wish to bring, and you incorporate their contributions. Picnics, like life, are a communal enterprise.

When you depart for a seder or for services during Passover, what will you bring with you? Your love? Your good will? Your patience? Your updated knowledge of the Haggadah? Family substructures? A tambourine?

When you leave the house today, what will you take that really counts? If you forget your cell phone, you may feel “naked” or suffer some inconvenience, but you may also have a more peaceful and mindful day. Walk out the door without a sense of purpose? In the words of American Express, “don’t leave home without it!”

The Mishnah teaches (Avot 6:9): “When a person departs from this world, neither gold nor silver nor precious stones nor pearls accompany him; only Torah and good deeds do.” “You can’t take it with you” is a familiar idea. But what can you take with you – now and eventually? What will last eternally?

The Israelites used their precious metals to build a Golden Calf and then a Tabernacle. The ark was gold inside and out, but we lost the ark. Over time, we lost every physical possession – even the bones and the tambourines and the tablets of the Ten Commandments that were held inside the golden ark. If all we have left is memory, good deeds, and celebration, wouldn’t that be enough? Dayenu!

May you be unencumbered and free this Passover. And may you carry what really counts.

(This article was first published in The Menorah, March 2018 issue, Congregation B’nai Israel, Emerson, NJ)