By Rabbi David Greenspoon
This week’s Torah portion is Beshalach, Exodus 13:17 – 17:16.
At the beginning of this week’s reading, we are told: “And hamushim (“armed” is the standard translation), the Israelites left Egypt.”
Jewish interpreters since ancient times have come up with other meanings for “hamushim.” One particularly fantastic suggestion by the ancient sage Rabbi Nahorai is that “hamushim” indicates that only one Israelite in 500,000 made it out of Egypt alive. According to Rabbi Nahorai’s midrash, only that fraction survived to embrace the wilderness journey to freedom, Torah and Promised Land.
Then we are told, “Moses took with him the bones of Joseph …”
The ancient sages wondered how Moses knew where the bones were. According to our midrash, Pharaoh had them hidden in an effort to keep the Israelites in Egypt. Since Israel was bidden to not leave Joseph’s bones behind, no bones, no Exodus.
At the last possible minute, Moses was informed by a woman named Serah bat Asher where Pharaoh had secreted Joseph’s casket in the Nile. Who was Serah bat Asher? The granddaughter of Jacob, Joseph’s niece through his brother Asher.
According to the midrash, Serah survived the entire period of Israelite enslavement, and even lived to enter the Promised Land. Doubly marginal as old and a woman in a patriarchal age, she alone held the key to Israel’s escape from Egypt.
The midrash sees the Israelites and Moses preparing for the journey ahead. The body of the community is concerned with military preparations, while Moses’ focus is the spiritual preparation. The implication is that a sacred community needs to recognize both the need for practical planning and for maintaining a commitment to a transcendent mission. While this wisdom seems obvious, it is not necessarily the only message that can be drawn from these sacred words.
One implication of this midrash is that our raw numbers are not the real indicators of our community’s vitality. A focus on raw numbers can be misleading, because it ignores important variables such as personal commitment, communal functionality and cohesion, and a larger shared sense of purpose.
The role of Serah bat Asher in this midrash offers a larger message. The sages use her to remind us that the potential of every member to impact the community is vitally important. The people we might marginalize for one reason or another might be the people who provide us solutions to critical challenges. Every one of us counts.
Every member of our community who shows up to be counted needs to be affirmed and welcomed, independent of age, gender, sexuality, ability levels, partnership/marital status, national origin or religious observance. Only then, suggests our tradition, can we really be prepared for the communal journeys we face.
Rabbi David Greenspoon serves Congregation Sha’are Shalom in Leesburg.