A Commentary on Parashat Beshallach, excerpted from Rabbi Elan Babchuck and Rev. Kathleen McShane’s new book: Picking Up the Pieces: Leadership After Empire
The Israelites’ existential escape from the shadow of the pyramids does not happen overnight; it takes generations. But their physical departure is just that quick. The biblical text spills precious little ink to flesh out the story, but the white lines between the black typeface tell of the Israelites’ breathless escape from the centuries-long grasp of their Egyptian captors. Imagine parents waking up children from their innocent slumber, prying the sleep out of their eyes. Picture the frantic darting from corner to corner of their homes, grabbing whatever they could carry. The story is told that they plundered the homes of their Egyptian neighbors, a signal of complete chaos as the tables of power are flipped upside down.
As they run out of their homes, the Israelites take only a few things with them—very few, in fact. Consider, though, what they do not take, what the escaping slaves leave behind. The story does not speak of the precious cooking pot handed down from one generation to the next, the ritual of enslaved mothers feeding their children. Nothing is mentioned of the tattered clothes left in closets and on the floor in the Israelites’ hasty exit. And while the story says that they took some unleavened bread with them, we are left to wonder what foods never make the journey.
What the text does tell us, many times over, is that it takes almost no time in the wilderness for the Israelites to yearn for what they left behind in Egypt. They are gripped with nostalgia even before they cross the border. First, come the cries to Moses to return them to their slave quarters. The undertow of the status quo is strong, a riptide of fear pulling them back. Distanced from even the meager creature comforts of life in Egypt, the people are sure that death awaits them in the wilderness. They cry out, “What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? . . . It is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness!” (Exodus 16:3). As the physical weariness of their desert wandering sets in, they grow thirsty and hungry.1 They yearn for the corrupted memory of full-bellied days in Egypt. Even if the work was back-breaking, they remember cups that overflowed with fresh water and pots filled with meats and fresh produce. Every day they ate their fill of bread.2
By the time the Israelites make it to the other side of the sea that will separate them from the pyramids, their pursuers swept away as the walls of the sea crashed down on them, they have with them only four items of note. Four things are named, carried from their former lives:
- unleavened bread
- gold, silver, and jewels taken from their Egyptian neighbors’ homes
- the bones of their ancestor Joseph
They carry only enough to forestall the immediate crisis of the wilderness. Had they tried to bring more bread than fit in their backpacks, it would have risen before its time or spoiled en route. If they had attempted to clean out the Egyptian jewelry coffers, the sheer weight of precious metals would have slowed them down enough to be caught by the army charging behind them. Instead, they carry simple things.
Each of these seemingly unrelated and unessential items carries significance at the surface of the text. Each also offers instruction for our own escape from the contemporary empire’s grasp. They are symbols, metaphorical representations of the things we need to escape the confining patterns of leadership imposed by the cultural pharaohs of every generation since liberation from the biblical one. The Israelites’ packing list signals what our journey, too, will require:
Sustenance. The Israelites’ exodus is a story of liberation. Their freedom is physical, spiritual, and mental. Their bodies are released from hard labor and the abuse of their taskmasters; they are free to worship their God however they please; they will gradually shed the slave’s mindset as they journey deeper into the wilderness. But first, they have to survive. Dry sand stretches out interminably before them. Their newly liberated bodies needed sustenance to regain and sustain a vigor the wilderness will demand of them. As inspiring as visions of a promised land may be, four centuries of fighting for their lives has kept the Israelites squarely focused on the danger sure to be lurking around the next corner. Starvation is one of them, they know.
Spoils. Beyond bread, they have gathered a small wealth of gold, silver, and jewels to carry with them on their journey. The Israelites had no clear picture of what awaited them on the other side of the exodus; not one of them had ever before left the confines of Egypt. So when they heard the call to gather their things and go, they grabbed from their Egyptian neighbors a few small items of great value. Later, when they arrive in a new home, they suppose the jewels might be bartered or repurposed. For now, they carry those jewels—symbols of the hope for a better life embedded in the promise of liberation.
The hope of their ancestors. Joseph, grandson of Isaac and great-grandson of Abraham, was the first of the twelve sons who brought their families to Egypt seeking shelter and food. Joseph’s last request to his children upon his death was an oath. He implored them to carry his bones with them to his prescient vision of a promised land.3 Joseph is ancestor to this people, the inheritor and conveyor of God’s promise to Abraham to make Abraham’s descendants a great nation.
The seventeenth-century commentary Shney Luchot HaBrit says:
“The word for ‘bones’ in Hebrew is the same as the word for “essence”—etzem. The Torah’s report then has a dual meaning. That is, Moses took Joseph’s essence with the Jewish people when they left Egypt. Having acquired Joseph’s essence, Moses was later able to give the Jewish people the Torah.”4
And so, as Moses prepares to take the Israelites out of Egypt four centuries later, he painstakingly tracks down Joseph’s coffin5, answering the promise that had been passed down for generations. Relics in his hands, Moses carefully plans for the safe transit of this ancestor’s legacy. Joseph’s hope, his ambition for his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, will travel with them as the people carry his bones. They will deliver the bones to the place of final burial Joseph hoped for6, not so much for the sake of the bones themselves but so the essence of Joseph—his legacy, the tradition he embodies—will remain with them.
The sound of celebration. Of all the useful things she could have picked up as she grabbed what she could before rushing out, Miriam, Moses’s sister, packs timbrels, ancient precursors to tambourines. And she holds them tight. She doesn’t drop them as she runs from the Egyptian chariots, steadily gaining ground on the ragged band of refugees. She clings to them as she steps onto the miraculously dry land between two imposing walls of water. And once she makes it to safety, even the thunderous crash of the waters behind her does not loosen her grip on the instruments. Miriam knows that at some point, their bodies will need to dance, sing, and celebrate in ways that they could never do while shackled in Egypt. Miriam’s decision to pack timbrels defines the character she is remembered for. She is known for her righteousness7, a faith that never wavers during the Israelites’ break for freedom. She is Miriam the prophetess8, titled for her faithful forethought that wherever the Israelites are headed, there will be cause for celebration. What Miriam holds in her hands, what she carries for all of them, is more than hope; it is promise. Promise of better days ahead. Promise of joy, even in the midst of profound tumult. Promise of the permanence of God’s love, even when it is not quite visible9.
Perhaps exodus and liberation are cyclical. Every generation is both uplifted by its predecessors and wriggling free of their grasp. This generation is not the first to know the need for resourcefulness and pragmatism. The difficulty distinguishing between the ancestral identity we are bound to carry with us and the trappings of tradition we are being invited to leave behind is as real for us as it was for Moses. The dilemma’s theological implications are profound. Religion is defined by the story it does not make up but participates in. We are the inheritors of promises we are bound to sustain beyond our ability to visualize their usefulness or current relevance. The question for leaders who are willing to shed tradition for transforma- tion is, What are those timeless, essential promises? And what, beyond them, shall we leave behind?
Rabbi Elan Babchuck is committed to leaving behind a world that is more compassionate and connected than the one he found. In pursuit of that commitment he serves as the Executive Vice President at Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Founding Executive Director of Glean Network, which partners with Columbia Business School. He was ordained in 2012, and earned his MBA that year, as well.
A sought-after thought leader, he has delivered keynotes at stages ranging from TEDx to the US Army’s General Officer Convocation, published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, Washington Post, and Religion News Service, has a column for The Wisdom Daily, contributed to Meaning Making – 8 Values That Drive America’s Newest Generations (2020, St. Mary’s Press) and is the co-author of the forthcoming book Picking Up the Pieces: Leadership After Empire (2023, Fortress Press).
He also serves as:
- a Founding Partner of Starts With Us, a movement to counteract toxic polarization in America,
- a Research Advisory Board Member of Springtide Research Institute, which focuses on spirituality, mental health and Gen Z,
- a founding board member of Beloved Network, a network of startup Jewish communities, and
- a member of the Board of Advisors of the Changemaker Initiative.
He lives in Providence, Rhode Island with his wife, Lizzie Pollock, and their three children: Micah, Nessa, and Ayla. In his spare time, he finds sanctuary while climbing rock walls around New England and tending to his backyard garden.
- Exod 15:24: “And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’” Again at Exod 17:3: “But the people thirsted there for water; and the people grumbled against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and live- stock with thirst?’”
- Num 11:4–6: “The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!’”
- Gen 50:25–26: “And Joseph took an oath of the children of Israel, saying: ‘God will surely remember you, and ye shall carry up my bones from hence.’ So Joseph died, being a hundred and ten years old. And they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.”
- Shney Luchot HaBrit, Torah Ohr 111. Composed in Ottoman Pal- estine (ca. 1611–ca. 1631). Written by Rabbi Isaiah HaLevi Horovitz (ca. 1555–1630), who is known by the acronym of the title of the book (Shelah).
- According to a midrash on the episode of Moses tracking down Joseph’s bones, Serah daughter of Asher instructed Moses to go to the brink of the Nile and beseech God to help him fulfill Joseph’s last request. Immediately, Joseph’s coffin rose up from the depths of the Nile just within reach of Moses.
- Joshua 24:32: “And the bones of Joseph, which the children of Israel brought up out of Egypt, buried they in Shechem, in the parcel of ground which Jacob bought of the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem for a hundred pieces of money; and they became the inheritance of the children of Joseph.”
- “The righteous women in that generation were confident that God would perform miracles for them, and they accordingly had brought timbrels with them from Egypt” (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael).
- Exodus 15:20–21: “Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her, dancing with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them: Sing to Adonai, for God has triumphed gloriously
- While Miriam’s timbrels only seem to have made it as far as she did, the tradition of celebrating with song and dance became a critical part of the Israelites’ evolution into a nation, both in the wilderness and in the promised land. We see mentions of timbrels a number of times after the Israelites cross the border, from King David to Jephtheh’s daughter, from Judges to Job. Miriam did not just inspire one song, one dance, in one particularly jubilant moment. She wasn’t just carrying a musical instrument. She modeled a way of leading into uncertainty, open-hearted and unabashedly hopeful. She carried in her hands the ambitions of a newly free nation, which not only fueled them in the moment but carried them for generations to come.