Va’chamushim – Armed or Otherwise”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, after enduring slavery for 110 years (by rabbinic count), the Israelites are finally led to freedom.

Lest the newly-released slaves be intimidated by the possibility of war and wish to return to the land of Egypt, G-d does not lead them into the land of the Philistines. Instead, He directs them toward the wilderness, to the Sea of Reeds (a.k.a., the Red Sea).

In Exodus 13:18, Scripture describes the state of preparedness of the recently released slaves: “Va’chamushim ah’loo v’nei Yisrael may’Eretz Mitzrayim,” the children of Israel were armed when they went up from Egypt.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) states that the word “Chamushim,” in this context, can only mean “armed.” Rashi then explains that had the Hebrews traveled on an inhabited route they would not have outfitted themselves in advance with all they might need since they could have purchased any necessities as they traveled. But now that their route was to lead through the wilderness, it was necessary to be well equipped for all possible eventualities they might encounter on their journey. This, says Rashi, explains how the Israelites had sufficient weapons to do battle with Amalek (Exodus 17:13), Sichon (Numbers 21:24), Og (Numbers 24:35) and Midian (Numbers 31:8), and that even after forty years of journeying through the wilderness, were able to cross the Jordan and enter the land of Canaan well armed (Joshua 1:14).

After sharing the literal reading of the word Chamushim, Rashi offers his famed alternative interpretation. Basing himself on the Midrash Mechilta and Tanchuma, Rashi suggests that the word Chamushim is derived from the Hebrew word Chamisha, five, and implies that only one of five Israelites departed from Egypt. The other four fifths, died in Egypt during the three days of the plague of darkness. Apparently, the vast majority of the Jews were so assimilated that they refused to leave Egypt. In response, the Al-mighty eliminated them during the plague of darkness so that the Egyptians would be unaware of what happened, sparing the surviving Israelites embarrassment.

Whether meaning “armed” or “one-fifth,” the word “Chamushim” has captured the attention of several commentators who elaborate on its meaning, and offer a host of interesting insights and observations.

Basing his comments on the standard interpretation of Chamushim to mean arms, the Chozeh of Lublin (R’ Jacob Issac Horowitz, 1745-1815, the Seer of Lublin, Father of Chassidut in Poland) refers to the translation of the Targum Onkelos, in Genesis 48:22, in which Jacob bequeaths the city of Shechem to Joseph. The patriarch Jacob says to his son, “I took [Shechem] from the hand of the Emorite with my sword and with my bow.” Onkelos there translates “sword and bow” to mean “prayer and request.” The Chozeh maintains that the most powerful weapon in a Jew’s arsenal is prayer. Any success that our people have in war is due only to the Jews’ state of spirituality. When the Jews came to the Sea of Reeds they battled, not with physical weapons, but with prayer. As the verse clearly states (Exodus 14:10), “The children of Israel cried out to G-d.”

Rabbeinu Bachya (Bachya ben Asher 1263-1340, Biblical commentator in the Golden Age of Spain) raises the question as to why the Jews needed weapons at all, since they were under G-d’s direct Divine protection. Citing the Talmudic dictum in Pesachim 64b, underscoring that one may not rely on miracles, Rabbeinu Bachya explains that G-d intervenes only after a person has expended a modicum of personal effort.

If that is the case, why did G-d have to split the sea? Now that they were armed, why didn’t He just instruct the Israelites to do battle with the Egyptian?

The Chatam Sofer (1762-1839 Rabbi of Pressburg, leader of Hungarian Jewry) explains that this too underscores the revolutionary nature of Jewish morality. The Torah states clearly in Deuteronomy 23:8, “You shall not reject an Egyptian [who wishes to convert to Judaism] for you were a sojourner in his land.” Had the Egyptians not welcomed Jacob and his children and allowed them to reside in Egypt, our people would not have survived the famine. The Egyptians were owed a great debt of gratitude, and therefore the Israelites had no moral right to do battle with them. The Torah states that Moses said to the Jewish people (Exodus 14:14), “G-d shall make war for you, and you shall remain silent.” While it’s true that the Egyptians invited the Israelites to come to their country in return for Joseph having saved them from famine, the people of Israel still need to express their gratitude to the Egyptians. But, if they were not permitted to do battle with the Egyptians, why did the Hebrews need to be armed? In order to specifically show that although the Israelites could have fought back, they, nevertheless, chose not to use their arms against their benefactors.

The Brisker Rav of Jerusalem, Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik suggests that there is a connection between Chamushim, armed, and the very next verse, which states (Exodus 13:19), “Moses took the bones of Joseph with him.” The armaments that are referred to in verse 18 were the bones of Joseph. The Midrash, Yalkut Shimoni, states that the sea split upon seeing the bones of Joseph. The Kli Yakar explains the connection by suggesting that the sea fled against its own nature (Psalms 114:3) as a reward for Joseph who changed his own nature when resisting the seductions of Mrs. Potiphar.

One might assume that multiple interpretations of the word Chamushim would be not only conflicting, but confusing. However, as is true of much of biblical commentary, many cogent lessons are extracted from the abundant interpretations, each with a validity of its own that applies within the parameters of its own particular context. We must embrace them and appreciate each of them for the vital lessons they teach.

May you be blessed.