Bo 5783 – Ilu Finu
I am a classic overpacker. This week I’m in the middle of four Shabbatot on the road in a row so I’ve been thinking about packing a lot. When I start packing, I count out how many days and how many outfits I’m going to need. Invariably, even if I am just gone for 2-3 nights, I somehow manage to pack way too many items of clothing, just to be prepared in case I need something more (I never do and always come home with many outfits untouched). But it’s good to be prepared!
In Parashat Bo, Moses again finds himself before Pharaoh asking to let the Israelites go. Pharaoh has agreed to let them leave Egypt to worship their God as long as they leave their sheep and cattle in Egypt. Even the children are allowed to go! But Moses says this is insufficient. They need all of their livestock to go with them as well:
וְגַם־מִקְנֵנוּ יֵלֵךְ עִמָּנוּ לֹא תִשָּׁאֵר פַּרְסָה כִּי מִמֶּנּוּ נִקַּח לַעֲבֹד אֶת ה׳ אֱלֹקֵינוּ וַאֲנַחְנוּ לֹא־נֵדַע מַה־נַּעֲבֹד אֶת ה׳ עַד־בֹּאֵנוּ שָׁמָּה׃ (שמות י:כו)
Our own livestock, too, shall go along with us—not a hoof shall remain behind: for we must select from it for the worship of our God; and we shall not know with what we are to worship God until we arrive there.” (Exodus 10:26)
Why is this such a sticking point for Moses? Why do they need to overpack and take all of their livestock with them? The Ger Rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchak Me’ir explains that the words, “we shall not know with what we are to worship God until we arrive there” aren’t talking about the sacrifices themselves, but about worship in general. We don’t know what value there is to worship yet, so we have to be prepared for every possible outcome! We just don’t know how to do this thing yet, we don’t really know what “worship” is! We don’t know if it’s going to work, and to be honest we don’t even know what “working” looks like.
This is a feeling I still have when I enter a space of prayer. And my answer for what “working” looks like can (and should!) change all the time. For me, prayer is supposed to help me figure out how to be the best version of myself. It helps me orient my day and set myself up for success. It is a moment to look inward and outward, to talk to God, to be in community, and to talk to myself. But I often don’t know exactly what it will look like or what I will need until I enter into that space, and the more I allow myself to enter and be open to possibility, the more I can feel lifted up and centered by my prayers, which to me feels like “success.”
We echo this sentiment every Shabbat in our morning prayers. We say, “Ilu finu male shirah kayam… v’ein anachnu maspikim l’hodot lecha al achat me’elef alfei alafim she’asita im avoteinu v’imanu,” “were our mouths filled with song like water fills the sea… we still would be unable to thank You for the thousands upon thousands of things You have done for our ancestors and continue to do for us.” The melody of this song lifts these words up high as if they were carried on the waves of the sea, buoyed higher by the ability of voices to come together in harmony, even greater than one voice on its own.
Prayer is one of the hardest things a Jew is ever asked to do. We struggle to find the words to say, the methods to use, to express our gratitude for the wonder of our own existence. So what is the role of words in prayer if words can never be enough? If we can begin to understand the depth of meaning layered in the words, perhaps the words will begin to soften our hearts, guide us, change us, and inspire us. And perhaps that is the ultimate goal of prayer. We might not know what we hope to achieve when we start, but hopefully when we arrive, we’ll know we are there, and we’ll know we’ve come prepared.