Definition of ‘Chamushim’ has much to tell us

BY RABBI SETH D. GORDON

Israel’s liberation from Egypt is recorded in Parshat B’shalach, “When Pharaoh sent the nation …”. However, the Torah continues with a curious statement: “Chamushim went up the Children of Israel from the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 13:18) Although the JPS footnote acknowledges that the meaning of chamushim is “uncertain,” both JPS and ArtScroll translate chamushim as “armed.” Here modern scholarship and rabbinic tradition, as passed down by Rashi, are in sync. The question is why is this arming of Israel inserted amidst the flow of the liberation narrative?

I suggest that this uncommon word emphasizes the physical theme of the section: The physical entity of Israel — enslaved by the Egyptian state for physical labor, threatened with the physical casting of Israelites babies into the Nile, having just witnessed vivid physical assaults on their oppressors — was armed physically for the physical attacks which would come, in a physically demanding terrain.

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The accentuation of physical survival, however, is not intended to supplant the spiritual dimension of these events. Deliverance occurred in God’s time, and, in a delicate blend of physical and spiritual, “chamushim” actually reflects God’s love. The very same transcendent God, as it were, supplied Israel with the tools to defend itself. Miracles, like the splitting of the Sea and the Manna, follow later in this parashah, but here chamushim, Israel’s self-defense, implies that religious faith and human responsibility are not mutually exclusive but reflect the fullest expression of religious life.

Yet, “chamushim,” should not too quickly be dismissed. “Chamushim” appears and sounds like chamesh — “five,” and long ago some clever Torah student took note and enriched us with a provocative midrashic interpretation, recorded in the ancient Mechilta and also passed down by Rashi: Only one of five Israelites left Egypt. These Israelites, who would be lost to Jewish destiny forever, did not muster the faith and courage to embrace God for a spiritual mission. It was safer, or easier, or more lucrative to remain as they were.

Both interpretations of “chamushim” address the physical threat to the Israelite nation. But the midrashic view reminds us that remaining part of the physical entity of Jewish peoplehood is intrinsically part of a spiritual mission, one that must be actively chosen rather than passively ignored and lost. And although from a strictly quantitative analysis those who have sought to kill us or convert us have radically reduced our numbers, the midrashic message suggests that our own choices have had an even greater effect on our numbers.

Our prophets addressed the diminished community of Israel, linking their modest numbers to religious living, referring to our ancestors as a “she-erit ha-p’laitah” a surviving remnant. We are the surviving remnants of surviving remnants. Every Jew is a Jew by choice. We decide whether to be part of the history and destiny, the physical and spiritual entity of an extraordinary people that has enriched humanity in quantity and quality far disproportionate to our numbers. We choose whether to embark on a journey with God through the wilderness via Sinai across the river into the Promised Land. The Holy One, blessed be He, has armed us with Torah and mitzvot for our spiritual and physical well-being, for that journey with Him to be a holy people and build a better world. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Seth D Gordon of Traditional Congregation is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.