Vah’chah’moo’shim–-A Call to Arms?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, Pharaoh sends the people out of land of Egypt, but after a change of heart, pursues the Israelites and entraps them at the sea. The sea splits, the Israelites walk through on the dry land, and Pharaoh and his Egyptian hoards drown in the churning waters. Moses and Miriam lead the people in songs of exaltation, thanking the Al-mighty G-d for the People’s miraculous deliverance.

When the Torah records the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt, Scripture tells us that even though it was closer, G-d did not lead the people through the land of the Philistines, because He was afraid that perhaps the people would regret having left Egypt when they would encounter war. And so, G-d made the people turn toward the wilderness, toward Yam Suf–-the Sea of Reeds (sometimes translated as the “Red Sea”).

Scripture then informs us (Exodus 13:18): “Vah’chah’moo’shim ah’loo v’nay Yisrael may’er’etz Mitz’rah’yim.” This verse is generally translated to mean that the children of Israel were “armed” when they went up from Egypt. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) indicates that the people had to be armed because they were going into the wilderness where they would encounter Amalek, Sichon, Og and Midian and would need weapons to defend themselves.

Otzar HaTorah, the Torah Treasury, published by Artscroll, cites a number of alternative explanations for the enigmatic term “chah’moo’shim.” Rabbeinu Bachya (1263-1340, author of a commentary on the Pentateuch) explains that despite the fact that they were under G-d’s direct protection, the Israelites took weapons with them, reflecting the Talmudic dictum cited in Pesachim 6b, that one should not rely on miracles, and that G-d intervenes only after people make a natural effort on their own part.

Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik (great  20th century scholar  of Brisk and Jerusalem, also known as Rav Berel Soloveitchik) states that this verse is connected to the following verse that tells us that Moses took the bones of Joseph out of Egypt with him. In effect, Rabbi Soloveitchik asserts that Joseph’s bones were the “weapons” that protected the people against the Egyptians at the sea. It was, as the Yalkut Shimoni states, only when the sea saw the bones of Joseph, that the waters parted.

The Chozeh of Lublin (1745-1815, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak of Poland, Chassidic leader) states that the “armaments” that the Jews took along with them were really the power of prayer. In fact, when the Jews came to the Sea of Reeds they did battle not with physical armaments, but with prayer, as the verse states (Exodus 14:10), “the children of Israel cried out to G-d.”

Eliyahu KiTov (1912-1976, one of Isreael’s most acclaimed religious writers) in his Sefer Haparshiot presents several additional interpretations of the phrase “vah’chah’moo’shim,” explaining that the word chah’moo’shim comes from the Hebrew word chah’maysh, meaning “five.” Kitov suggests that the Jews were armed with five types of weapons: a bow and arrow, a handstick, a spear, a sword and a shield. Alternatively, suggests Kitov, the five elements of protection were actually Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and Aaron. Another original explanation cited by Kitov is that the children were the people’s protection, or that the Erev Rav–-the mixed multitude who joined the people of Israel, were their protection, alluding to the prophecy in Zacharia chapter 2, that on that day the nations will be joined to G-d. KiTov also notes that alluded to in the word “chah’moo’shim,” is the fact that the Torah mentions the exodus from Egypt fifty times.

Despite all these interesting homiletical interpretations, perhaps the most riveting and disturbing is the alternative explanation of “vah’chah’moo’shim” cited by Rashi, also based on the root word chah’maysh-–five. Says Rashi, “Echad may’cha’mee’shah yatz’ooh, v’ar’bah’ah chah’lah’kim may’too bish’lo’shet y’may ah’fay’lah.” Only one-fifth of the Israelite people departed from Egypt! The other four-fifths died in Egypt during the three days of darkness, (Mechilta Tanchuma 1)!

Clearly this Midrashic interpretation is not easily reconciled with the textual material. After all, our commentators labor diligently to explain how seventy souls (69 people) who came down to Egypt with Jacob (Genesis 46:8-27) expanded so rapidly to become 603,550 men over the age of 20 in just 210 years. To justify this enormous growth, our rabbis explain that each time a Jewish woman gave birth in Egypt she delivered sextuplets (see Rashi on Exodus 1:7). If only one-fifth of the Israelites made it out of Egypt (as this Midrash maintains), that would mean that more than three million males (!) had to be born during that period of 210 years.

And yet, despite this unrealistic demographic estimate, the interpretation of only one-fifth of the Israelites departing is not summarily dismissed, underscoring its obviously vital importance. This Midrash not only reflects the reality of the devastating assimilation in Egypt, but also forecasts what Jewish history would later confirm many times: that the greatest losses to the Jewish people would come, not from their physical enemies, but from their spiritual weakness.

Many mainstream historians indicate that Jews constituted fully one-tenth (approximately seven million) of the great Roman Empire’s population at the turn of the Common Era, and that despite all the physical travails that the Jews endured over the millennia, were it not for assimilation, there should still be approximately 500 million Jews in the world today. And yet, contemporary demographers usually set the present worldwide Jewish population at only 12-13 million Jews.

We need to also bear in mind that according to this interpretation, the 603,550 Jews who left Egypt at that time, the so-called top “99th percentile” of identified and committed Jews, the ones who refused to assimilate, refused to engage in the drunken and bloody orgies with their Egyptian masters, these so-called “loyal” Jews, were the very ones who proceeded to test G-d in the wilderness ten times, at Marah, with the Golden Calf, with the Mannah, with their pleas to return to Egypt, to find new leadership, and to find a new G-d. If so, if these were the virtuous ones, we can only imagine what the rest of the Israelites who remained in Egypt were like.

It is from this one little verse, and from the various interpretations of the one little word “Vah’chah’moo’shim,” that we become privy to all of Jewish history in a nutshell. Its lesson is clear. Weapons do not protect the People Of Israel, nor do shields, nor do bows, arrows or spears. It is our commitment to Torah, and our loyalty to our faith that protects us. It is our single-minded devotion to provide the most excellent Jewish education for our children that saves us. Our sages teach “Ma’ah’seh ah’vot see’mahn l’vahnim,” (Sotah 34a) the deeds of the fathers are a sign for the children. Parashat B’shalach is our call to arms, our call to insure Jewish posterity. This 3,000 year old document could not be more relevant, nor its message more resounding, than the lesson we learn from parashat B’shalach today.

May you be blessed.