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Provisions, Protection, and Parshanut

01/14/2022 01:50:38 PM


Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Beshallah in which the Israelites finally depart from their slave homes in Egypt. The parasha opens, “Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds. Now the Israelites went up armed out of the land of Egypt'' (Exodus 13:17-18). 

The word translated as “armed” there is chamushim, which JPS footnotes as “meaning of Hebrew uncertain.” The rabbis argued about the exact meaning of this word, both in it’s translation and in it’s subtext. Rashi alone offered three explanations, one of which being that chamushim does not actually mean “armed” at all, but rather draws on the root chamesh, or five, to denote that only one-fifth of the Israelites came out of Egypt, the other 80% of the population having died in the three days of darkness due to their unworthiness of God’s deliverance. By contrast, the Midrash Tanhuma quotes Rabbi Joshua as saying the opposite: five times the population of the Israelites left Egypt that day, as the mixed multitudes joined our ancestors in their liberation. I love that the same word can generate such confusion and leave room for so many different opinions! And, of course, it is entirely possible for both of these to be true. If four-fifths of the population of the Israelites died in the ninth plague, then the number of the mixed multitudes would not have to be very high at all to amount to five times the number of Israelites. But on their surface, the two midrashim seem to be total opposites, and they have nothing to do with the most common understanding of the verse. 

Given the context, I believe the translation of “armed” makes more sense than the play on the root word meaning five. But what exactly were they “armed” with, if God is also afraid that the Israelites would turn back at the sight of war? If they were properly armed, shouldn’t they be prepared for war? 

Rashi suggests that it fulfills two meanings: simply, they were armed, so don’t be confused by the end of the parasha when the Israelites win by the sword over the Amalekites. On another level, however, there is the understanding that this verse communicates God’s foresight in preparing the Israelites for their 40 years in the wilderness. Rashi says, if God planned to bring the Israelites directly to the Promised Land, or via a circuitous route through inhabited lands, the Israelites might not have needed to be armed with swords or provisions, as they would acquire what they need along the way from other peoples. But because God needed the Israelites to have their time in the wilderness to learn to be a people unto themselves, they had to leave Egypt fully equipped. While Rashi skillfully brings both understandings to the text, many of the other medieval commentators lend their voice to one or the other - either the word “armed” communicates the readiness for war, OR it communicates the readiness for 40 years in the desert. 

Still yet one more voice addresses the question I posed above - if the Israelites were properly armed, shouldn’t they be prepared for war? No, Sforno says, at the very outset of their exodus, they still feel too fragile a people, too inexperienced with their weapons, too newly freed, to face the Egyptians in battle. Thus, though they are armed, God has reason to be worried about their response in the face of possible war, and they are certain they will die when they see Pharaoh’s army charging at them before the Sea of Reeds splits. However, by the time they encounter the Amalekites, though it seems quick by the Torah story-telling, it clearly is enough time later that the Israelites feel ready to wield their weapons. 

You all know I’m a bit of a peacenik. I’m not hugely in favor of the battle scenes in the Torah. I have trouble appreciating the necessity of the Israelites to wipe out everyone in the Promised Land as they settle the land. So it’s not that I bring this justification of this translation because I love what it says itself. But that these commentaries, taken together, teach the breadth and depth of how we read Torah. Hundreds of years’ worth of Jews looked at the same ancient words and each came up with their own read of it. And now it is our turn. 

How do we read “chamushim”, and more importantly, what are we armed with to engage with our peoplehood now? Are you eager for battle, or ready to venture out into the wilderness? Are you equipped with the knowledge and provisions you need to dive into the texts and values of our ancestors, has the Divine spirit of the Universe provided you with what you need to address the big questions of your lives today? 

This week is Shabbat Shirah and Shabbat Tzedek and the Shabbat before Tu BiShevat. There are so many current topics to think about this weekend, and all could lead each of us in as many directions as this one word in this week’s Torah portion did for the rabbis. May we hear each other out, think critically about what we hear and read, and may we interpret our sacred texts in a way that is true to ourselves. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Sat, May 28 2022 27 Iyyar 5782