The other day I was on the way to my garden version of morning davening. It’s very pleasant; nice people, cool air, bucolic, except for the traffic jam a football field away. While waiting for the little green man to appear, replacing that red guy (I really miss ‘Walk’ and ‘Don’t Walk’, when I believed the signage was addressing me, personally.), I noticed a municipal vehicle in front of me marked: HATZALA V’CHILUTZ (Rescue and Extraction). I was struck by the Hebrew root CHET, LAMED, TZADI. It’s so versatile.
In this week’s Torah reading this root appears as a verb, NECHALUTZ, when B’nai Reuvein and Gad said, ‘we will go as an advance guard (or ‘vanguard’, perhaps ‘quickly’, Bamidbar 32:17).’ The term appears later, again as a verb. Then three times in noun form, perhaps translated ‘special force’. The authoritative translation of Onkelos uses the root ZIRUZ, which implies speed and skill, to translate our word. Of course, this gives us the famous term used to describe the ‘pioneers’ of the first Jewish communities in Eretz Yisrael in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That’s fine, but what about other uses of the word?
Perhaps, the most familiar usage of the root in Jewish tradition is CHALITZA. That’s the mitzva ceremony when rejecting YIBUM (Levirate Marriage, marrying the childless widow of a brother). Here’s the verse: Then his brother’s wife shall approach him before the eyes of the elders and remove (V’CHALTZA) his shoe from his foot (Devarim 25:9). Also, in modern Hebrew shirts or tops are called CHULTZOT. It seems to be a clothing term as either verb or noun. So, what is the action described by the Biblical term CHALATZ? Is it ‘remove’ or ‘behave bravely’?
The dual meaning helps to understand the modern terminology of CHILUTZ units, both civilian and military. They act very bravely and skillfully to remove individuals from precarious situations, cave-ins or building collapses. Best of both worlds.
It’s time to return to our verse and try to understand the commitment promised by B’nei Reuvein and Gad. The Chizkuni elegantly explains that they can move fast because they have already secured their families in fortified towns near the Jordan River. The term really means ‘to remove’, in this case impediments to their speed.
The Maor V’Shemesh provides a beautiful approach to our problem by changing our question. He understands that the term CHALATZ means to ‘remove’ or ‘release’. The Rebbe, instead, wants to know how NILCHATZ works in conjunction with the next word in their declaration, CHUSHIM. What are CHUSHIM? They are ‘senses’, like the senses of taste or smell. What are they declaring? We are freeing ourselves from normal human senses. We are going to perform ‘superhuman’ deeds, because we’re now free from pain and fear.
Now we can understand the response of Moshe Rabbeinu: If you do this, if you go as CHALUTZIM before God to war…(Bamidbar 32:20). The Ma’or V’Shemesh explains that when one is truly ‘before God’ that person has the power to turn off normal human senses, and can enter a meditative or prophetic state beyond the boundaries of sight, smell, feel, etc. That’s the deal. They said, ‘We will turn off the normal human boundaries to exceptional achievement.’ Moshe responded, ‘Okay, but that can only be achieved ‘before God’. Only then can one be free of human limits. I know, because I’ve been there.’
The Rebbe describes it: All the senses can be concentrated in the brain and then cleave (DABEK) to God and access the ‘higher brain’, which can connect the individual to the Infinite (EIN SOF). Then there are no limits to human achievement.
He goes on to note a pun. The B’nei Reuvein and Gad will ‘corral’ (GADER) their flocks before leading the fight in Eretz Yisrael. They will leave behind all G’DEIROT, fences and limits on their military prowess.
Ultimately, the root CHALATZ means to remove. The issue is, and always will be: What are we removing? It’s okay to take off a shoe or a shirt, but greatness is achieved only when other impediments are sloughed off.
Astronaut Ron Garan wrote about the freedom he felt when achieving weightlessness in space, but observed: We are limited only by our imagination and our will to act. B’nei Reuvein and Gad declared: We will not be limited; we discard all barriers and obstacles to our goal! That’s being a pioneer, a CHALUTZ, may God bless and protect those heroes.