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Which Way to Go? Eitan Cooper on Beshalach

Eitan Cooper
| 22/02/2020
Israel and Zionism
Shavua Tov @ Schechter
Thought and Philosophy

In Parashat Beshalach the route the Israelites will take through the desert is described. Neither the journey nor the identity of the group setting out from Egypt is straightforward.

Eitan CooperExecutive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of The Schechter Institutes, explores whether all of the Israelites really left Egypt. What path led them (eventually) to the Promised Land?

Read the accompanying article below:

One of the most incomprehensible passages in the Exodus narrative comes at the beginning of this week’s Parshah, B’shalach. Commentators on the Torah used this passage to probe both the depth of individual souls and to interpret historical events, leaving us with more questions than answers.

The passage begins by explaining that God did not guide the Israelites to the Promised Land the short way, what it calls “The Way of the Land of the Philistines”, an ancient highway leading directly from Egypt to the Land of Israel, “because it was close by”.  Commentaries tried to explain this: Some suggested that the people, their souls still tied to their former lives as slaves, would turn back at the first problem if the way back was too easy. Others explain that the people needed a 40-year journey through the desert to learn and internalize the Torah, that if they had gone straightaway into the Land, they would have quickly abandoned it.

Yet, why is this passage in the Torah at all, when as per the main narrative, Moses had already been told at the Burning Bush that the main design of the Exodus involves bringing them back to Horeb, that is to Mt. Sinai, presumably to receive the Torah? Was giving the Torah just God’s “Plan b” when “Plan a” didn’t look like it would work? It makes no sense. Was this passage, as suggested by some modern Biblical scholars, part of a parallel Exodus tradition that somehow worked its way into the text?

The passage continues with God stating that the shortcut was avoided because the Israelites weren’t prepared for fighting a war, and might turn back. This is stranger still, because going the long way around they were chased by Pharoah’s entire army, and at the end of the Parshah they had to fight a desert war with the Amalekites.

The passage furthermore states that the Israelites came out of Egypt “hamushim”, usually meaning “armed”. Yet the main narrative never mentions that the Children of Israel took arms away from the Egyptians. Moreover, if they were really armed for war, why not go via the Land of the Philistines? This really makes no sense!

The 4th Century collection of Midrashim on Exodus called “Mechilta”, and a later work called Midrash Tanchuma, suggested an alternative reading of the word “hamushim”, from the Hebrew root ”chet, mem, shin” for the number “5”. Accordingly, only 1/5 of the Israelites left Egypt! Surprised? It continues! Some say it was one out of 50, still others say one out of 500, perhaps just one out of 5,000!

What were our Sages thinking? Why would 4/5 choose to remain? If just 1/5 left, it is reminiscent of many historical Jewish communities in which most Jews remained where they were, despite persecution. Yet if it was only one out of 50 or 500, what would that imply? Perhaps only a few people chose to follow the dangerous path to Mt. Sinai and the arduous journey to the Promised Land? Who were they? – Idealists? Zealots? Perhaps these Sages are hinting that real redemption is only ever possible for a very few.

The same Midrash then continues with an even more radical suggestion: most of the Children of Israel died in Egypt and the Israelites took advantage of the Plague of Darkness to bury them! If so, how and when did they die and why did so many have to die before redemption could be achieved?

I read this part of the Midrash in the light of parallel events closer to our times. Most of European Jewry was murdered shortly before the State of Israel came into existence. Are these sages suggesting that historical redemption is only possible following great catastrophe? Does it follow from this that the Holocaust and the founding of Israel, similar to Enslavement and Exodus, are the two components of a unique epoch-making event that forever revolutionize the Jewish People, with impact on the world?

The answer to that question, first inspired by Emil Fackenheim’s book “God’s Presence in History”, published exactly 50 years ago, is in our hands.

Shavua Tov from Schechter.

Eitan Cooper is the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of The Schechter Institutes. Since coming to Schechter in 2000, he has served in various capacities, including TALI Outreach Coordinator and Vice President for Development. Mr. Cooper holds a BA from the University of Chicago and an MA from the Hebrew University. He is a graduate of the Mandel School for Educational Leadership and a licensed Israeli tour guide.

Eitan and Anita Cooper made Aliya from the United States in 1983, and are proud parents and grandparents to their growing Israeli family.

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