September 21, 2018

Armed and Divided – Torah Portion Be-shalach

Armed and Divided

Shabbat Thought Torah Portion Beshalach 2018 (adapted from 2017)

In the Torah portion this week, Beshalach, we are told in Exodus 13:18, that the Israelites arose from Egypt “chamushim.” From how the word “chamush” is used in other passages from the Bible, the translation “armed” seems to be right. They came out with swords at their sides, ready for battle.

Some ancient rabbis playfully interpreted the word chamush to mean “a fifth” – the Hebrew word for “five” is “chamesh.” According to this interpretation, only a fifth of the Israelites came out of Egypt. What happened to the other four-fifths? Perhaps the rest were undecided, afraid, or ambivalent. The Israelites come out of Egypt armed, but divided.

I would like to offer a more psychological approach. Maybe that the division into fifths was within each Israelite, referring to our divided selves. Only a fifth of each person, some small part of them, wanted out of Egypt and to serve God. Historical events had swept them out of Egypt to the shores of the Sea of Reeds. The Egyptians were hounding them, about to pounce, when the sea opened and they ran panting toward the other side. Once there, they celebrated their having escaped with their lives. And then the ambivalence arose – the other four fifths began to do battle inside each of them.

One fifth of each person was terrified of God. They saw what God had done to the Egyptians. They knew that if you get on the wrong side of this God, that one could be struck down with terrible plagues. Egypt had been devastated, but at least the devastating force of the Hebrew God was gone. That force of fury and devastation was now with them. Maybe Egypt was safer now. Maybe we should go back.

One fifth of each person deeply resented being terrified, and wanted to challenge God, even if it meant pain and death. Being afraid was bitter to the soul. This fifth of each person wanted to challenge God, to rid themselves of the fear, daring God to bring on his worse.

One fifth of each person was glad to be out of Egypt, but did not want to be a servant of God. God freed them from Egypt, but now the bill was due. They weren’t given any option as to what the freedom from Egypt would bring. They didn’t even know who they were, what they believed; events happened too fast. An identity was imposed upon them before they even had time to think.

One fifth of each person focused their ambivalence on Moses, who perhaps seemed a petty tyrant replacing the depredations of Pharaoh. Why was he in charge? Moses hadn’t even been in Egypt with them. He was a poser, speaking for and to people he barely knew. He was a Levite, but there were many Levites. He stuttered. His Hebrew was not very good. He had anger issues. He had a black wife. One fifth of each person was fixated on Moses.

And one fifth of each person wanted out of Egypt and, out of gratitude and trust, wanted to serve the God who had proven to be a force of liberation.

As with most of us, the divisions within the self are pushed down, silenced, as we try to live one day after the next in lives that sometimes feel that we did not choose, lives that we feel we were swept into. As with most of us, events in life bring those deeper ambivalences to the fore – we symptomize.

The soul has many, many dimensions, many chambers, and one chamber is the repository of the divided selves. We try to live as if there is no ambivalence, no second-guessing of what and who we have become, but nonetheless, those divisions in the self live on within us.

I think there are two ways forward, many versions of the two ways, but at the core, only two ways forward. Repress and symptomize, or enter into the realm of the soul and work with what we find there.

When we enter to the realm of the soul, and unlock the chamber of the divided selves, there can be disruption. We recover forgotten prayers, unrealized hopes, thoughts never concluded.

A rabbi once taught that we should “stop hoping, stop praying and stop thinking.” I think this rabbi meant this as it applied to living a life of virtue. A life of virtue only stops the symptomizing; a virtuous life does not address the deeper battles being waged within.

It is true, though: We should stop hoping that we and others will change, because hoping for change can have destructive consequences. That hope within oftentimes causes us to batter them or ourselves into the change we are hoping for. Stop praying for the universe to take care of you; maybe the universe doesn’t even like you. You are on your own. Get used to it.

Stop thinking and rethinking the rules of life that you have arrived at. We achieve clarity at great cost and then our ambivalence has us constantly undo our conclusions and rethink us into a morass.

I agree with this rabbi that for a life of virtue, to restrain the symptoms of inner discord, we should “stop hoping, stop praying and stop thinking.” I would simply add to those teachings that once we can behave with restraint and mindfulness, despite the battles within, then we can then enter into the dark territory of the soul, including the chamber of the divided self.

A life marked with some degree of virtue and consciousness can care for the wounds stored up in the soul. With virtue and consciousness in place, we can discover and cultivate a sense of purpose in light of a soul sometimes torn with ambivalence.

A mind calmed can discover that for which we can authentically hope. A mind calmed with virtue can discover the stillness of true prayer and cultivate the joy and awe in knowing God. A mind shaped by virtue can think well and clearly about what has been, what is now, and what to do next.

We come out of Egypt divided. We can use our trek in the desert, and the epiphanies that we encounter, either as a marred journey of symptomizing the divided self, or as a path to purpose, and even occasional bliss.