Rabbi David Walk
People often make fun of rabbis, and I take it personally, so cut it out! No, no. I mean about the way rabbis parse material, whether it's a verse or a Mishnah. Many critics are thrown into a tizzy about the lengths these scholars will go to squeeze out the last drop of meaning from the text. Well, those disapproving onlookers should listen to the way American jurists debate the straight forward statement which is the Second Amendment to the American Constitution. It's just this one sentence: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed. People go crazy trying to figure out what rights are being protected. Does it mean only weapons in a militia context or any weapons whatsoever, nuclear included? The arguments go on and on ad nauseam. The solution is really so simple. The amendment means whatever the advocates of my political persuasion say it means. You might think that I mention the Constitution this week, because of the debate about a new member for the Supreme Court here in the US. But you'd be wrong. It's the fact that my neighbors are building a missile silo. Again, just kidding. The real reason is that the first right to bear arms text is in this week's Torah reading.
As the Jews are exiting Egypt, the verse states: So God led the people around by way of the desert to the Reed Sea, and the children of Israel were armed when they went up out of Egypt (Exodus 13:18). The word I translated as 'armed' is chamushim. This word is extremely rare in our Tanach. So, our rabbis had to figure out the best way to translate it. Some say it means 'provisioned', as in food and clothing. Others have devised a famous (and clever) twist on the word. The root of chamushim is chamesh or 'five'. Therefore, we have a Midrash which claims that the word should be translated as 'one fifth'. To make sense of the verse, these crafty rabbis concoct a background story. During the plague of darkness when the Egyptians weren't watching (Duh!), 80 per cent of the Jews died and were buried. This group, apparently (much like Edward G. Robinson, as Dathan, in The Ten Commandments), didn't want to leave Egypt, and this was deemed the best solution to the public relations issue of Jews preferring to remain in Egypt during the exodus. When the lights came back on, not a single Egyptian noticed that four out of every five Jews had disappeared. Hence, only one fifth were leaving. That interpretation is, at best, a stretch.
I think that the translation 'armed' makes the most sense, both etymologically and contextually. In modern Hebrew, the word tachmoshet (as in Givat Hatachmoshet) still means ammunition. Again, the word is based on the number five, and it's logical because the first weapon in history was a fist, or five fingers.
But is that interpretation logical contextually? The previous verse states: It came to pass when Pharaoh let the people go, that God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines for it was near, because God said, Lest the people reconsider when they see war and return to Egypt (verse 17). It appears that God is eschewing the shorter coastal route to Israel, because the dangerous Philistines were in that area. By the way, that route also had many fortresses with Egyptian soldiers to protect this lucrative trade route. In other words, God is doing everything possible to avoid war, therefore weapons shouldn't be necessary. And, there's another problem. As the Jews are standing between the Sea and the Egyptian army, God demands that the Jews stay put and watch God fight on our ancestors' behalf. Why do they need weapons?
We could, of course, give many reasonable answers. Perhaps, the weapons were for future battles, like the one against Amalek. The assumption was that they would go directly into Israel, and that would require years of warfare, and, therefore, weapons made sense. One could imagine that many Jews might find the right to carry weapons reassuring after so many years on the receiving end of whips and lashes. However, I would like to suggest a different answer, with an unusual twist.
There are a couple of Aramaic translations of our Torah, which, unlike Onkelos, are homiletic. The most famous is Targum Yonatan ben Uziel. According to tradition, it was written about 50 BCE, but most historians believe it was written centuries later in Babylonia. This translation says that the 'five' refers to five kids per family. The other translation is called Targum Yerushalmi (or Pseudo Yonatan) and that one renders it 'armed with good deeds'. These translations are in keeping with the idea we discussed in parshat Vayechi, when we said that Ya'akov's weapons (bow and sword) were his prayers. It made sense to interpret the weapons metaphorically when we Jews were without countries and armies of our own for so many centuries. Perhaps, with the advent of the modern State of Israel we can think of literal weapons again, but that doesn't diminish the power of those ancient explanations.
The idea that we have no greater weapons for the defense of our nation than our children should inspire us to invest our resources into the education and training of our future leadership. We couple that view point with the concept that the greatest defense of ourselves and our souls are our mitzvoth and good deeds, and we see that the exodus from Egypt was preparation for all future encounters with the world at large.
When we left Egypt, we stepped boldly onto the world stage. That entrance required great courage and confidence. Our goal is to remain on stage for the duration of the performance no matter how many acts there may be to human history. We must arm ourselves with whatever weapons are necessary for the job.