ENCINO, Calif., March 8 (JTA) — “Are we there yet? I’m hungry. I’m thirsty. I want to go back home.” These could be the cries of the Israelites moaning to Moses for 40 long years as they escaped from Egypt to Canaan, the promised land. Actually, these are the complaints of my four sons — ages 6, 8, 10 and 14 — as we drive from Los Angeles to Yucaipa Regional State Park, near San Bernardino, Calif. To my sons, an hour-and-a-half car ride equals 40 years of wandering. To my husband Larry and me, four whining boys are equivalent to 603,550 Israelites, their flocks and their herds. We’re on our way to “Seder in the Desert,” an annual three-day camp-out and communal seder. It is our literal and labor-intensive interpretation of the injunction found in the Haggadah, the Passover liturgy: “All Jews must regard themselves as if they personally went out of Egypt.” Let me just say this: After you’ve eaten a matzah kugel that’s sat on the bottom of an ice chest for 36 hours and been reheated on a Coleman camp stove, you’ve truly suffered. But not everyone shares my belief that sleeping on the lumpy and chilly ground — and not our obstinate attitudes — makes us, in God’s words, a “stiff-necked people.” Rather, for 19 years, with the goal of reaching 40, hundreds of congregants from Temple Beth Hillel, in North Hollywood, Calif., have gathered together in a huge and uneven circle of tents, RVs and volleyball nets to recreate the Exodus. This year marks our family’s seventh year of participating. Over the years, I have gained the utmost respect for Moses. He not only began his journey at age 80 but also had to leave Egypt hastily, on foot, without the advantage of a four-wheel drive sport utility vehicle, which certainly could have been an asset in ascending Mt. Sinai. And it was there at Mt. Sinai, surrounded by thunder, lightning, flames and the sound of the shofar, that one of Judaism’s most solemn and sublime moments occurred — God’s handing down of the Ten Commandments. This simple, universal and absolute moral code, the original blueprint for “The Berenstain Bears Forget Their Manners,” marks the birth of the spiritual history of the Jews. As a family, we commemorate this divine proclamation before leaving our driveway, reminding our four boys of the fifth, and most immediately compelling, commandment: “Thou shalt honor thy father and thy mother.” But what most people don’t know — and what constitutes an essential addendum to this commandment — can be found in Exodus: “And he that curseth his father and his mother shall surely be put to death.” But Passover is not only about revelation and redemption. As at all important Jewish holidays, food rules. And here Moses had a distinct advantage. The Israelites had to pack only a month’s supply of unleavened bread, the proverbial and gastronomically proven bread of affliction. And there were no minor skirmishes over choosing egg, whole wheat, white grape or apple cinnamon. And, in fact, when their supply of hastily prepared bread was eaten, the Israelites merely had to go out every morning and collect manna, the delicious food that God rained down from the skies and that, according to Jewish tradition, was well liked by everyone. But there’s no manna at Yucaipa Regional State Park. And there’s no eating at the hametz-ridden A&W Root Beer stand. So let’s just say that my family has come to love cream cheese and jelly on matzah. Eating is one of the kids’ favorite activities. The other is loading and firing their Super Soaker 2500s, with a choice of three stream widths. This necessitates a stern reminder of the 11th commandment: “Thou shalt not blast thy father or thy mother with a stream of water of any size.” This offense, obviously, is also punishable by death. So while the kids play, the parents engage in a variety of time-honored and traditional camping and Passover tasks. These are easily summed up in the words of this popular holiday song: For it’s work, work, work Every day and every night. For it’s work, work, work When it’s dark and when it’s light. The only genuine relief comes when my friend Carol breaks out her famous matzah farfel chocolate nut clusters and her husband, Don, fires up the camp-stove compatible cappuccino maker, transforming our culinarily challenged site into “Starbucks in the Desert.” But the real reason for camping out comes on Saturday, in late afternoon, when over 350 Temple members gather together to celebrate the seder. We sit at tables arranged in a gigantic horseshoe, with a panoramic view of the San Bernardino Mountains. To the tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” we begin by singing: Another Seder in the Desert, One more Seder in the Desert, With the Seder in the Desert, The Exodus lives on. And I realize, amid this weekend of prayer and play, friendship and family, that my husband, Larry, and I have admirably fulfilled the biblical commandment to tell our four boys the story of the Exodus. I also realize, as I gaze at their sun-burned, dirt-streaked and radiant faces, that, although lovingly locked in eternal bondage, we have truly reached the Promised Land.
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