Sermon: Being a descendant of the 20%

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 19 January 2019

If you flick through a JPS Tanakh – a modern translation of the Hebrew bible used in many schools and synagogues; the one we just gave as a gift to Nathan – you will find at the foot of a surprisingly large number of the pages a note: a link from a word in the text to the following comment, ‘meaning of Hebrew uncertain’.

One of the challenges of engagement with such an ancient text is that of translation.  Many words in the bible are uncertain in their meaning.  What must surely have been obvious to those who heard, told, or wrote down these formative stories, our people’s poetry, laws and myths, thousands of years ago, is now ambiguous, unclear; leaving the modern reader to grapple, occasionally to bash our heads, and – depending on one’s inclination – also to take joy in the opportunity to find our own meaning.

One such example comes just a couple of verses into the portion that Nathan read for us this morning.  There we read ‘Va-chamushim aloo v’nei yisrael’.  On leaving Egypt, we are told, the Israelites came up ‘chamushim’.

The normal translation – following some of the early Aramaic versions – is ‘armed’, or ‘battle ready’.  Indeed, the modern Hebrew word for ammunition is tachmoshet.  There is a memorial site in Israel, Givat Ha-Tachmoshet, Ammunition Hill.

But this is not a completely obvious meaning.

The word chamushim is – it seems pretty clear – linked to the Hebrew word chameish, meaning five but how does this come to mean battle-ready?  One logic seems to be that an army had five units, or that regiments were in multiples of 5, maybe.  So chamushim means in divisions?  But, as the JPS says – “meaning of Hebrew uncertain”.

And with this uncertainty comes other possibilities.  So, the earliest Greek translation renders the text as ‘in the fifth generation’ – which works as a translation but not in the biblical chronology.

A modern understanding might be that it might relate somehow to the Arabic word chamsin, the dry, sand-filled windstorms that blow in Egypt in the spring, so called because traditionally they blow over a fifty-day period.  So Israel left in that period, or maybe in a sand storm?

A more powerful midrashic tradition – a rabbinic interpretation – is the idea that chamushim should actually be read as meaning ‘a fifth’.  That is, only a fifth of the Israelites in slavery actually left.  Four fifths either remained in Egypt or died during the plagues.  Some voices in the early midrash the Mekhilta even suggest that chamushim should be read as one in 50, or one in 500 – indeed, according to one Rabbi, Nehorai, “It was not even one in five hundred but fewer”.

Of course, these numbers are not meant to be taken seriously.  If, as we read last week (in another number I’m not sure we are supposed to take literally) that 600,000 men on foot came out from Egypt, not including the women and children, the minimum the midrash suggests is that 2.5 million men remained behind.

If this is not a midrash to be believed as descriptive – what then is it for?  Why even the idea that such a number of people might have stayed?   What are the rabbis trying to teach us?

Underlying this midrash – born of uncertain Hebrew – is that we ask a question: Why?  Why might they not have gone?  What is it that would have brought such a large number of people to choose to remain in exile, even in slavery?

Perhaps, one midrashic voice suggests, there were some Israelites who were not so badly off – were in the pay of wealthy Egyptian patrons, and wealth and comfort took priority over freedom.
Perhaps for some, even those who were in slavery, it was simply fear.  Better the devil that they knew.

Or, perhaps, what this midrash suggests is that the majority of the people had simply switched off.  The majority of the people were living their lives as best they could, finding comfort in the small things, but were not even thinking about the big picture questions.  Even after seeing the plagues brought upon Egypt they could not shake themselves out of their inertia, their indifference to the fate of others and themselves.  Those who stayed – the 80%, or the 98% or the 99.8% – had stopped paying attention, stopped railing against their situation, had lost the will to fight anymore – and as a result they missed the importance of the moment in which they found themselves.

Thus, a challenge of translation is actually transformed into a remarkable insight about society.
The instinct, the temptation, to withdraw is a strong one.  To be indifferent, to switch off, check out; in the words of the columnist John Harris, to be “a nation of sleepwalkers” – anything for a quiet life.  To become Brenda from Bristol – who famously responded to the news that there was going to be a general election not with delight at her place in the democratic process, but with the words “Not another one. Oh for God’s sake, honestly I can’t stand this,” and was for some reason hailed as the ‘voice of a nation’.  To become Bobs – those who are ‘Bored of Brexit’: only waking up at the moment of crisis, having ceded all ground to those at the extremes of the debate.

It is easy to withdraw – perhaps easier than to become active, to face the challenges.  This is true of our relationship with British politics, with Brexit – and with more substantial global concerns.  On this weekend of Tu B’Shvat – the New Year for Trees – in which we are especially aware of Jewish environmental responsibilities – we might observe that despite the plague of floods and the plague of hurricanes and the plague of droughts, many of us are still unable to stir ourselves to action, to believe in and work towards the possibility of change.  We remain behind in our metaphorical Egypt.

As Jews that cannot be our way.

Our historical task, our identity, is as those who pay attention, who do not remain indifferent, who can be bothered – to be inquisitive, active, passionate.  Our role models are those who intervene, who get involved for the greater good – those who cry out and those who do something about it.  Nathan has spoken about the model of Moses – who took on the task of liberation with the best interests of the people at heart not his own needs or comfort.

Jewish law contains this expectation of us – “lo tuchal l’hitaleim”, we read in Deuteronomy – you are not able to hide yourself, from your responsibilities to others and to the world.  As the Talmud remarks: “At a time when the community is suffering, no one should say ‘I will go home, and eat and drink, and be at peace with myself’”.

The full verse in which the word, chamushim, appears tells us that “God led the people by a roundabout route, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds; the Israelites went up chamushim out of the land of Egypt”.
The commentators have long been puzzled by God’s choice of route – why did they need to go a roundabout way?
Perhaps it was to avoid encountering those who had stayed behind who they might have met on their way.  For had they done so their indifference would have been contagious.  This attitude is self-perpetuating; indifference breeds indifference, the weight of others’ disinterest is demotivating.
And so, we have an additional responsibility, too: to ensure that we role model for those around us, especially our children.  To show them that we care, that we are paying attention, that we demand to be actors in the world.

No-one really knows what chamushim means in our Torah portion.  Perhaps it does just mean battle-ready, or armed; maybe it speaks to the windy season.  Or, perhaps, it tells us that only one fifth, one fiftieth, one five-hundredth of the Israelites actually left Egypt.  If that is true, then we are the descendants of the 20%, or the 2% or the 0.2% – those who were not indifferent, who still wanted to fight, to look up – those who did cry out, those who were paying attention.  Our task is to honour that example – to pay attention in our day, too.