Kenneth Brander
President and Rosh HaYeshiva, Ohr Torah Stone

Adding harmony to the song: One people, multiple chords (Parshat Beshalach)


Parshat Beshalach, the parsha of the crossing of Yam Suf – the transformation of the Jewish people from a slave  nation to a people of destiny – a Torah section that has been made into several big picture feature films.

It is a Parsha of joy – Shabbat Shira of song.

And in one of the first verses of the Parsha, we’re told the following:

וַיַּסֵּב אלוקים אֶת הָעָם דֶּרֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּר יַם סוּף
And God led the people in a roundabout way through the wilderness, by Yam Suf

וַחֲמֻשִׁים עָלוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם
And the Israelites went up from the land of Egypt “chamushim”

The straightforward interpretation of the word חמושים is that the Israelites were armed with weapons.

But our Sages derive something else from the fact that the word “chamushim” has the same root as the word “chamesh”, meaning “five”.

They learn from this that only one out of every five Jews left Egypt –  just 20%.

Then the Midrash goes even further, teaching that it was actually just one of every 50 that left – only 2%!

Another opinion offers a third, even more distressing interpretation, that only one out of every 500 Jews, just .02%, opted to leave Egypt.

These numbers are as interesting as they are depressing.

Not every Jew was willing to leave the Egyptian exile. Indeed, not every Jew viewed life in Egypt as an exile. Exile is, as Rabbi Soloveitchik states, a subjective concept.

What an important message for us today, in a world where so many Jews do not share the same outlook regarding the destiny of the Jewish people.

We must not accept a reality like the one in Egypt, where so many Jews were prepared to opt out of their Judaism.

We have a sacred responsibility to engage all Jews and to make sure that every Jew realizes that they are part of the destiny of the Jewish people, regardless of where they live or the degree of their religious expereince.

As Jews, we may all approach our Judaism differently.However – Unity does not require uniformity.

Our rabbis tell us that when the Jewish people crossed the Yam Suf, they crossed through 12 different paths/lanes.

Even when we’re all on the same journey,

we must all find our own path.

As we celebrate Shabbat Shira this week, recalling in our Torah reading the joyous song sung by the Jewish people as they stood on the riverbank victorious and safe from harm, we mourn the thousands of Jews who never joined us on our freedom march from Egypt.

We take this opportunity to remember our challenge and obligation to reach out to the Jews in our time who no longer personally identify with our destiny as a people, and to engage with them with love and respect.

Let this parsha be a reminder that we are all part of a symphony, each of us with our own unique set of instruments and abilities, working together to contribute to a collective composition.

Shabbat Shalom.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, an Israel-based network of 32 educational and social action programs transforming Jewish life, living and leadership in Israel and across the world. He is the rabbi emeritus of the Boca Raton Synagogue and founder of the Katz Yeshiva High School. He served as the Vice President for University and Community Life at Yeshiva University and has authored many articles in scholarly journals.
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