The moment has arrived! Ten plagues later, the Egyptians finally send the Israelites away. As the newly-emancipated Israelites embark on their journey, they hastily make bread, matzot, for sustenance.
“And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough which they brought forth out of Egypt, for it was not leavened; because they were thrust out of Egypt, and could not tarry, neither had they prepared for themselves any provisions.” (Exodus 12:39, adapted from OJPS translation)
What are we to make of the fact that the Israelites seem unprepared for an exodus they were told was coming? Here are three perspectives that open up the range of possibilities.
Rashi: In Praise of Israel
Rashi, channeling a midrash in Mekhilta, writes: NEITHER HAD THEY PREPARED FOR THEMSELVES ANY PROVISIONS for the journey. This is stated to tell how praiseworthy Israel was, that they did not say, “How can we go forth into the wilderness without provisions?” But they had faith and set forth. This it is that is referred to more explicitly in the prophets: (Jeremiah 2:1) “I remember for you the affection of your youth, the love of your nuptials, how thou went after me in the wilderness in a land that was not sown”. What reward is afterwards set forth there? “Israel is the Lord’s hallowed portion, etc.” (translation from Sefaria)
According to Rashi, we as readers are told that the Israelites had no prepared food for the journey so that we might get some sense of the depth of their faith in God. Yes, they knew the exodus would come, but they didn’t know when exactly. So when God said, “Now is the time,” they went, exhibiting deep trust that they would be taken care of.
Yosef Bechor Shor: Critiquing Israel
Yosef Bechor Shor, a contemporary of Rashi’s grandson Rashbam and a fellow resident of medieval France, takes the opposite tack from Rashi.
“Even though Moses told them they were leaving now, they didn’t think they would be sent out so suddenly, but rather thought they would be given time to bake their dough and to fix their provisions.” (my translation, Hebrew can be found here)
Bechor Shor seems to be suggesting that the Israelites were lacking in faith, not taking Moses seriously when he said they needed to set off. The urgency of the moment eluded them. If Rashi’s view of faith is that one should leap unprepared when asked, Bechor Shor’s view of faith is that one should be prepared to leap in anticipation of being asked.
Rashbam: The Nature of Journeys
Rashbam sets a simpler aim than commenting on Israel’s faith or lack thereof. He sees this verse, which tells us about the hasty departure and consequent lack of prepared provisions, as anticipating developments a few chapters later, at Exodus 15:24 and 16:2-3.
“NEITHER HAD THEY PREPARED ANY PROVISIONS for the journey FOR THEMSELVES: And that is why they had to complain in order to receive bread and water.” (Martin Lockshin’s translation)
As Lockshin notes, “The text has to tell us that they had no provisions with them so that we will not be shocked by those complaints.” Rashbam’s close attention to the text helps us recognize the narrative scaffolding that gives us as readers clues and clears the path towards our understanding.
However, to borrow a phrase Rashbam favors, I think there is an omek peshuto shel haRashbam, a profound plain-meaning to his comment here. Life is made up of moments where we suddenly find ourselves on a journey. Perhaps we can see it coming, as with a graduation or wedding. Perhaps we do not see it coming, from the brighter paths of new job opportunities or new interests sparked unexpectedly, to the harder paths of illness and loss. Either way, there are things we can prepare, and there is so much we simply cannot pack in our spiritual knapsacks.
Part of being human means journeying with less than we’ll eventually need. That also means part of being human is connecting with others who can help us. We may sometimes complain. Other times we may act with considerable grace. But we will always need help, and we will always need connection. There is no need to praise, no need to blame, simply a need to be compassionate. The ultimate preparation is not necessarily for the journey, but to be prepared to seek help and to offer help to fellow travelers along the way.
For more about Rashbam, see my introduction.