01/27/09

16 B’shalach ARM

Uncle Henry passed away this past Sunday in London; he was 97 years old and died peacefully – a blessing. My mother, his youngest sister (they were 8, now only 4 are left) is sitting Shiva for him at home here in Jerusalem and the past two days have been a nonstop event – the announcements, the phone calls, the rituals, the logistics, the endless stream of mourners and visitors – and, here and there – the quiet moments for reflection, and for fond memories, and for mourning the loss of a loved family member. Early this morning, over a cup of tea, my mother talked about the privilege of letting go peacefully: ‘When one is born, one’s fist is clutched tight, like grabbing on to life, but most often when one dies – one’s hand is open, extended, having let go of life – nothing else to hold on to.”

Thoughts of mortality, birth, and passages of all sorts resonate in this week’s Torah tale, B’shalach, which takes our ancestors, finally, out of Egypt, across the Sea of Reeds, and onto the highroad of freedom. The birth of this nation is accompanied by many deaths – the Hebrews who were left behind, the slain Egyptian firstborns, the drowned Egyptian soldiers… And the Hebrews, on their way to the promised land – are like newborn babies – their fists are clutching tightly, grabbing on to hope, to fresh matzos – and, surprisingly, also to weapons.

Weapons??

The Biblical reference here is vague– “…and the Israelites left Egypt armed” (Ex. 13:18) (the Hebrew word is hamushim) – and this vague term enables different interpretations and symbolic meanings. Most classical interpreters and translations suggest that Israel were armed with weapons (interesting how the word ‘arm’ is extended to describe that which is held by the arm – at times – a weapon). If they did take arms along, it was perhaps a sensible choice – but does it make the fleeing Hebrews into an armed resistance movement? And if so, should it change the way we, and others, view our image, our history, our legacy? (In current Israeli media and official military reports the word hamushim is used to describe armed Palestinians – targets precisely because of their bearing of arms. Interestingly, the relatively neutral term has all but replaced the term mehablim – “terrorists” — in mainstream Israeli media-lingo. But were we the original Hamushim?)

Curiously, this rather important item on the Exodus packing list didn’t make it to the Passover Hagada. How have we “forgotten” about this episode in our long history of bearing arms? No sword, to the best of my knowledge, has ever been added to any Seder plate and most of us haven’t even been told about it. Is the image of Jews bearing weapons back at our birth as a nation so troubling as to be worthy of collective repression?

Not necessarily. The precise meaning of hamushim here is inconclusive, and equally plausible readings other than “armed” tell a very different story that has nothing to do with weapons. The word can be also read as being derived from the root hamesh – five and describing not what was carried, but who and how many actually left Egypt. The Aramaic Targum Yonatan (known in modern academic circles as the Pseudo Jonathan Translation) renders Exodus 13:18 as: “And every one of the sons of Israel, with five children, went up from the land of Egypt.” No guns, just demographics. The Targum’s choice is unique, but it is similar to an oral tradition that is also cited in the rabbinic Midrash Tanhuma which acknowledges that hamushim means “armed” but points out that it can also be read as meaning that only one out of five Hebrews left Egypt. It adds: “Some say one out of 50 left, and some say one out of 500. Rabbi Nehorai says: only one? out of 5,000 left Egypt.” (Midrash Tanchuma, B’shalach 1]

This radical reading reminds us that not everybody is willing to take the leap of faith into the unknown future. It challenges us to imagine ourselves with five minutes to pack and flee – would we have left the familiarity of suffering in Egypt in favor of an obscure, and possibly already populated promised land? Or would we have been among those who stayed behind? The implications go into the psychological and political aspects of life: How does this challenge relate to our personal and collective attempts to get out of the familiar narrow straits and onto the road toward more freedom, prosperity, peace?

We may never know for sure whether our ancestors left Egypt clutching their fists and bearing arms or whether they left many of their loved ones behind, or both. But we do know that they left oppression behind, and packed bread of affliction, drums for worship, ancestral bones and high hopes for the journey home. They also packed their stories – our memories – and stories carry values, more important than valuables. Those stories are our real legacy, more important than missiles or tanks or arms of any kind – as they keep challenging us to remember who we once were and to strive to become who we really want to become.

And as I sit here in my parents living room, late at night, everyone’s gone, and a candle is flickering in memory of the departed, and memories and stories told all day float in the empty room, I too let go, and extend my fist open, and rest, briefly, in peace.