Urgent message:

Given the most challenging situation in Israel at this time, I urge all to pray for the bereaved families, the hostages, the missing and the many casualties. Please try to perform additional mitzvot, send funds to help the needy and grieving families, and attend the rallies that are being organized in support of Israel.

May the Al-mighty protect the State of Israel, its citizens and bless it with peace!

Vah’chah’moo’shim–A Call to Arms?”
(updated and revised from B’shalach 5765-2005)

 By Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, Pharaoh sends the Israelite slaves out of Egypt.

But, after a quick change of heart, Pharaoh and the Egyptian army pursue the Israelites, entrapping 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 his sister, Miriam, lead the people in songs of exaltation, thanking the Al-mighty G-d for the People’s miraculous deliverance.

At the opening of Parashat B’shalach, when the Torah records the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt, and the Al-mighty’s intention to lead them to the Promised Land, Scripture informs us that even though it was a shorter route, G-d did not lead the people through the land of the Philistines, because He was afraid that if they encounter war, they would lose faith and regret having left Egypt. 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 notes (Exodus 13:18): וַחֲמֻשִׁים עָלוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. This verse is generally translated to mean that the children of Israel were “armed” when they went up from Egypt.

Rashi 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 חֲמֻשִׁים–“chah’moo’shim.” Rabbeinu Bachya 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 64b, that no one should rely on miracles, since G-d intervenes only after people make a good-faith effort on their own behalf.

Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik states that this verse is connected to the following verse that reports 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, that only when the sea saw the bones of Joseph, did the waters part.

The Chozeh of Lublin states that the “armaments” that the Jews took along with them was 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.”

Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov in his Sefer Haparshiot, presents several additional interpretations of the phrase וַחֲמֻשִׁים–“vah’chah’moo’shim,” explaining that the word chah’moo’shim comes from the Hebrew word חָמֵשׁ–chah’maysh, meaning “five.” Rabbi 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 Rabbi Kitov, the five elements of protection were actually Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and Aaron. Another original explanation cited by Rabbi KiTov is that the Israelite children served as the people’s protection, or that the Erev Rav–the mixed multitude of Egyptians who joined the people of Israel, were their protection, alluding to the prophecy in Zacharia 2:15, that on that day the nations will be joined to G-d. Rabbi 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, as well as disturbing, is the alternative explanation of “vah’chah’moo’shim” cited by Rashi, also based on the root word chah’maysh–five. Says Rashi, citing the Mechilta Tanchuma 1, אֶחָד מֵחֲמִשָּׁה יָצְאוּ, וְאַרְבָּעָה חֲלָקִים מֵתוּ בִּשְׁלֹשֶׁת יְמֵי אֲפֵלָה, Only one-fifth of the Israelite people departed from Egypt! The other four-fifths died in Egypt during the three days of darkness!

Clearly, this Midrashic interpretation is not easily reconciled with the actual text. After all, our commentators labor diligently to explain how seventy souls (69 men) 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 in Egypt gave birth 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 within 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 over: that the greatest threat to the survival of Jewish people would come not from their physical enemies, but from their own spiritual weakness.

Many mainstream historians maintain 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 13-16 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 (see Passover 5767-2007) these so-called “loyal and committed 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 demands 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 seemingly insignificant verse, and from the various interpretations of the one little Hebrew word “Vah’chah’moo’shim,” that we gain an insight into much of Jewish history. The lesson is eminently clear: Military weapons do not protect the People of Israel, nor do armored shields, nor do bows, arrows or spears. What protects the Jewish People most effectively is our peoples’ passionate commitment to Torah, and our loyalty to our faith. It is our single-minded devotion to provide the most excellent Jewish education for Jewish children that gives us the ability to survive and thrive.

Our sages teach, מָעָשֶׂה אָבוֹת, סִימָן לַבָּנִים, (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 more than 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.

In this week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, we encounter the “Shirah,” the song, namely the historic song that Moses and the People of Israel and Miriam and the women of Israel sang as they crossed the Red (Reed) Sea. Because this song plays a central and essential role in Jewish history and Jewish life, the Shabbat on which it is read is called Shabbat Shirah, “the Sabbath of Song.”

On Wednesday night and Thursday, January 24th and 25th, we celebrate Tu b’Shevat, the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, the New Year for trees. In Israel it symbolizes the beginning of Spring. On Tu b’Shevat it is customary for Jews to eat species of fruit that specifically grow in the land of Israel.

May you be blessed.