Family & Education

Camping, with Exodus as guide

Josh Howie and family went camping - and it tested their faith


What are the Jews if not a nation of reluctant campers? We’re not like our Bedouin cousins who can’t get enough of a night out under the stars; we’re a people who hate camping so much we willingly took on 613 commandments and agreed to a bunch of covenants in the promise that God would finally lead us to indoor plumbing. I imagine our forebears would look upon us with incredulity then, that some of their descendants might actively CHOOSE to reject the hard-won comfort of brick dwellings, for accommodation even the laziest of the three pigs would consider structurally unsound!

Alas, none of the above arguments was enough to sway my wife and she clicked “confirm” on the camping website. Like a modern-day Moses she was committed to leading four Jewish families in our children’s school bubble out from the tribulations of lockdown into the wilderness. Her one concession to her people’s protestations — the outdoor toilets must be porcelain.

Our mini-Exodus took place last weekend and, while there was no Red Sea parting, unless you count the North Circular being less busy than usual, the experience did make me consider the Torah in a new fashion. You’d think that after multiple millennia of our greatest scholars interpreting that most central of sacred texts, nothing new could be discovered, but I think I might’ve happened upon a previously hidden function: Camping Guide.

Lesson 1. If you’re going camping with Jews, organise it last-minute. This will cut down on the reams of unnecessary communication and stressing during the lead-up. If the past few weeks of continuous streaming WhatsApp messages are anything to go by, it’s a good thing the Israelites were given only short notice of their departure. Otherwise there’d have been another five books of Moses: Packing, Directions, Supermarket, The Weather, and ETA.

Lesson 2. Take only bare necessities. Linked to the above, grabbing just the essentials as you flee for your freedom has its advantages. I’m sure there must be a sweet spot somewhere between bringing everything not nailed down and “God will provide”, but we’ve never found it. Given more lead-in time, the only way I can see the Israelites making it more than a few feet is if God had provided an extra miracle of camels with roof boxes.

Lesson 3. Just read the instructions! When it came to the tabernacle, God couldn’t have been clearer. All you do is take the pegs and put them in the cubits … two of them I think… just do that 20 times on one side… wait, where do these 40 bases of silver go? Now it’s talking about the rear of the tabernacle westward? Does anybody have the rear of tabernacle westward piece? What do you mean cubits is the length?

Essentially the Levites got the job because only they could make head or tail of the instructions. To this day they’re still very good at assembling Ikea furniture.

Lesson 4. Tent envy is real. No doubt the tabernacle, with its blue, purple and crimson yarns, embroidered linen and five acacia pillars was pretty impressive. But I’m telling you, the Skandia Montana is nothing to scoff at either! Three entrances. Three sleeping rooms. Eight berths, sewn-in floor and mosquito mesh for insect- and draught-free sleeping comfort. Lots of functional extras, such as a hook for your lantern. Whenever I pick up our children from playdates at our parental peers’ beautiful homes there’s always a little green goblin festering inside: “What did we do to not deserve a kitchen extension with a marble all-in-one kitchen top?” But, for one glorious weekend a year, the Howies get to be the Bishops Avenue of the campsite.

Lesson 5. Whining is winning. Whining is where Jews can best be Jews, and camping gives us something to complain about. Does anything ground Exodus more in reality than, miracles notwithstanding, the entire book’s being essentially one big whine. “What’re we going to eat? This water’s a bit off. I miss meat. When’s Moses getting back?” Moses being a dad in our party who’d gone to the local Co-op to try to find some fire starters.

Lesson 6? Wait, something’s missing. Something so integral to the Jewish camping experience, its omission is enough that even the most observant might question their faith. I believe the Red Sea parted. Sure the Nile turned to blood. But. Even though I could sketch you a precise graph of the various states of need and fulfilment for every member of our group last weekend, am I meant to buy that when 2.4 million Jews spent 40 years outside, there’s NOT ONE mention of toiletry habits? I need to call my rabbi.

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