Michal Kohane

Going through the Land of the Philistines?

The story of the “Exodus from Egypt”, the wonderful story of a group of slaves who nevertheless and despite everything, came out of bondage to freedom; the story that ignited their imagination and inspired many throughout the generations and throughout the world; that same story is also the story of darkness, of struggle, of depression, of fear, of the background to the picture; of everything that is not told, or told with barely a hint.

“And the Children of Israel went up armed from the Land of Egypt”, tells us this week’s Torah portion, Be’shalach (starting Exodus 13:18). Armed? How is it possible that a group of slaves, after tens, if not hundreds of years in slavery, left out with war weapons? Do we imagine the Jews of Europe after the Holocaust and the death march, going out like the current fighters of Golani and Giv’ati?

Rashi explains that, first of all, we learn from this about the journey ahead. Generally, when a person moves from one place to another on a trip or trek of some kind, s/he can plan to buy most of what’s needed at the next place, but the Israelites knew that a. they are going to the desert and not to an inhabited place, and the desert is a place where you cannot buy what you need, and b. that they may encounter enemies and people who are not hospitable to them.

Why would they have enemies? Who cares if these slaves finally go home? Indeed, it was already clear to them that they needed to prepare protective measures; that the journey would not be easy.

Rashi brings another interpretation, and this one is the most difficult of all. Because so far, we have dealt with the “p’shat” – the “simple”, straightforward meaning of the word – chamusim means fortified, armed, possessing weapons of war.

But the Mechilta (a Midrash on the Book of Exodus from about 2000 years ago which Rashi brings here) says that the word “chamushim” hints at a terrible tragedy: because its shared root with the word chamesh meaning – 5, we learn that only “one out of five came out, and four parts died in the three days of darkness”. Another midrash, the Yalkut Shimoni adds “And some say, it was one out of fifty. And some say – one of five hundred.”

That is, contrary to what we thought, not all the Israelites left Egypt. There were those who did not believe in the upcoming deliverance and certainly not in its usefulness:

‘What is the point of going to the desert now?’, they said to each other after hearing another announcer explaining the matzav – situation to them, ‘Who are we going after? After Pharaoh’s adopted son, this stutterer who barely decided who he is, the one who thinks Gd is speaking to him? Who is he anyway? Does he even have a coalition and solid support from the people??’… ‘Look, look’, they continued, ‘we’ve been here for years, and I’m telling you, we’ve already lost this war. On the first day – we already lost. What is there to talk about, they have won. What about our children that they stole from us? What if we’ll never see them again… it’s better to give up and quickly. And these two old men who go to Pharaoh? Enough of that. Believe me, it’s just because they like to hang out in the palace… let’s just stay here and make peace with the Egyptians’…

And I think of England in World War II, of the “Blitz”, when from September 1940 to May 1941 Germany bombed London in particular and other British cities mercilessly, day and night. And even afterwards, Britain was subject to the Nazis’ attack until March 1945 – more than 4 and a half years!! The Blitz caused the death of 43,000 civilians (forty-three thousand!! civilians!!), and the destruction of over a million houses (1,000,000!!) , but his strategic goal was not achieved: Britain did not surrender and was not prepared for ground invasion.

And on the other side of the globe sat, quite quietly, the USA, which one morning in December 1941, its base in Pearl Harbor in Hawaii (Hawaii!) woke up to the strangest and most surprising sound of Imperial Japanese Navy airplanes. The Japanese worked for about two years on this day, in order to surprise the Americans , and indeed, American intelligence did not discover the Japanese plan. Among other things, they had a Japanese spy in Hawaii, and they perfectly disguised their plan by sending ambiguous messages, and holding “peace talks” at the same time between the Japanese ambassador and the American secretary of state.

In the surprise attack, the United States lost 12 warships, 188 aircraft and 2,459 soldiers and civilians. The next day, then-President Franklin Roosevelt gave his famous speech, and the US rallied and joined the war. Initially, the Imperial Japanese Navy enjoyed an advantage, even a significant one, but no temporary advantage, even if “temporary” meant years, enticed the US leadership to declare that “we have already lost this war”.

The Torah portion of “Be’shelach” opens with the words: “And when Pharaoh sent the people, Gd did not lead them through the land of Philistines for it is near, for Gd said, lest they see war and returned to Egypt…”(13:17)

So many strange things about this one verse.

It should have been said something like – ‘And when Gd sent the people, He took them by the shortest route to the Land of Israel, because they had had enough and wanted redemption now and liberation now’…

But the verse begins by saying that it is Pharaoh who’s the one who sent them. Walking with Gd is wonderful, but in this world, we are not disconnected from other peoples, and – good or bad, we need to work with them and their leaders; and after all the amazing plagues of Gd, it was Pharaoh who sent the people away.

And the verse uses the Hebrew word nacham, in the sense of lehanchot, to guide, and also related to nechama – comfort, because sometimes the longer way is the better and more suitable one.

Further –

Despite the fact that the children of Israel walk with Gd Almighty, they are scared; scared to go through the Land of the Philistines, what is right around nowadays’ Gaza; and this fear is justified and true and should be recognized because if it is not taken care of, it may have serious consequences, and for that, sometimes one must change the course of action, recalculate and plan differently on the fly, but in no way does it include giving up who we are, nor giving up on the journey.

This week is Tu Bishvat, the new years of the trees. Herman Hesse, author and Nobel-prize winner wrote in his charming book “Vagabonds”, a beautiful essay on the trees, and at the end: “… He who has learned to listen to the trees, will never again ask to be a tree himself. He will only ask to be himself and nothing else”… perhaps along with celebrating our trees, nature and Land’s beauty, we should celebrate being who we are, and once again ask – to be that and nothing else.

Shabbat Shalom.

About the Author
Currently a "toshevet chozeret" in Israel, Rabbanit Michal Kohane, trained chaplain and educator, is a graduate of Yeshivat Maharat and teacher of Torah and Talmud in Israel and abroad, and soon, official tour guide in the Land of Israel. She holds several degrees in Jewish / Israel studies as well as a PsyD in organizational psychology, and has been a leader and educator for decades. Michal’s first novel, Hachug ("Extracurricular") was published in Israel by Steimatzky, and her weekly, mostly Torah, blog can be found at
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