Traitors or Patriots?

Today there are Jews in Israel and abroad who collaborate with our most vicious enemies against Israel, always claiming that their passionate, even desperate, love for Israel impels them to take a brave stand against Israeli policies...

Daniel Pinner

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It is just the subtlest hint that something had gone terribly wrong. Such a tiny detail that few people who read the Torah ever notice. “G-d led the nation roundabout, through the desert to the Red Sea [1], and the Children of Israel ascended armed from Egypt” (Exodus 13:18).

Few people notice, or are even aware, that the word חֲמֻשִׁים, which we have translated here as “armed”, is spelled defectively. There should be a dagesh (a dot) in the ש – but the dagesh is missing.

חֲמֻשִׁים instead of חֲמֻשִּׁים. It is a minuscule grammatical detail – yet it hides a tragedy.

Because of that missing dagesh, several Midrashim (Shemot Rabbah 14:3; Tanhuma, Vaeira 14 and Beshallach 1; Sechel Tov, Bo 10:31; Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Pis’cha 12; Yalkut Shimoni, Exodus 208 et al.) derive the word חֲמֻשִׁים from חָמֵשׁ, five. Hence, they conclude, only one in five Jews left Egypt. Not just that “the Children of Israel ascended armed from Egypt”, the simple, literal meaning of the text, but that “one-fifth of the Children of Israel ascended from Egypt”.

What happened to the other four-fifths?

Among the Jews in Egypt were many – way too many – who preferred to remain in Egypt.

Some had ostensibly holy motives: they knew that G-d had told their ancestor Abraham that they would be enslaved and persecuted in a land not theirs for 400 years (Genesis 15:13), and they argued that they had been in Egypt only 210 years [2]. Therefore, they reasoned, Moshe was trying to bring the redemption ahead of its time. We had another 190 years to wait, they argued, another 190 years during which we were condemned to remain in Egypt.

They were Satmar and the Neturei Kharta of the generation. They were against Moshe and against Zionism because, according to their reasoning, G-d would lead us out of the exile in His time – a time which had not yet come – and not in Moshe’s time.

And then there were the others. The Jews who had enthusiastically adopted Egyptian idolatry, who identified as Egyptians, who had Egyptian patrons, who felt themselves to be at home in their Egyptian fatherland, and who refused to leave their “homeland” for “exile” in Israel.

They were the Reform and assimilationists of their generation. They were against Zionism because they were openly against Jewish national identity.

Between them, these Jews who – for whatever reason – refused to leave Egypt numbered some four-fifths of the Jews. And during the ninth Plague, the Plague of Darkness, those four-fifths of the Jewish nation died and were buried by their fellow-Jews.

The Plague of Darkness thus served two functions. It was both a punishment for the Egyptians, and also G-d’s opportunity to eliminate the Jewish renegades under the cover of darkness, so that the Egyptians would not witness this terrible Jewish tragedy. Because publicising such widespread Jewish treason would have constituted a terrible desecration of the Name of G-d.

And maybe this is the reason that the Torah – which was destined from the start to be translated into all languages (see Shabbat 88b), and would therefore be available for all mankind to read – did not record this embarrassing and humiliating episode explicitly.

It merely hints at the lost four-fifths of the nation. Hints at it so subtly that even a careful reader of the text – and certainly anyone who reads the Torah in translation – could not possibly derive this national disaster.

And then there were others – other Jews who had collaborated with the Egyptians during the dark years of slavery. The Torah (Exodus 5:6) refers to theנֹּגְשִׂים , nogsim (slave-drivers or taskmasters) and the שֹׁטְרִים, shotrim (officers or foremen). The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 15:20) explains that the slave-drivers were Egyptians, and the officers were Israelites.

The Rashbam (commentary to Exodus 5:6, following various Midrashic and Talmudic sources) explains that the Egyptian slave-drivers were appointed over the Israelite officers, and the task of the Israelite officers was to enforce the orders of the Egyptian slave-drivers on the masses of Jewish slaves.

The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 1:28) records that each Egyptian slave-driver was appointed over ten Israelite officers, and each Israelite officer was appointed over ten slaves.

It is temptingly easy to view those Israelite officers as archetypal kapos – Jewish traitors who collaborated with the persecutors to save their own skins.

However, those Israelite officers who were ostensibly collaborating with the Egyptian slave-drivers were actually the best and bravest of all: they physically stood between the Egyptian slave-drivers and the Jewish slaves, protecting their fellow-Jews with their own bodies when necessary.

This is the reason that when Pharaoh increased the Israelites’ workload (Exodus 5:6-9), it was the Israelite officers who were whipped when the ordinary slaves failed to meet the quota (v. 14).

As the Midrash details, Pharaoh “appointed the slave-drivers of the Egyptians over the Israelite officers, and the officers were appointed by the rest of the nation. When [Pharaoh] said to them, ‘You shall no longer give straw to the nation’ (Exodus 5:7), the slave-drivers would come and count the bricks. When they saw that the tally had not been fulfilled,…the [Israelite] officers would be beaten in lieu of the rest of the nation, rather than handing them over to the slave-drivers. They said: better that we be beaten, and the rest of the nation not suffer” (Bamidbar Rabbah 15:20).


“From here you learn”, concludes the Midrash, “that anyone who sacrifices himself on behalf of Israel merits honour and greatness and Divine inspiration”.

Now throughout our history, we have seen Jews who collaborated, or cooperated, or colluded, or worked together, with non-Jewish rulers, including with oppressors. The Hofjude or Hoffaktor was a fixture in Christian Europe for almost as long as Jews were there – the Court Jew who used his wealth and contacts, his influence and business acumen, to finance the Christian kings and bishops, in return for security and protection for the Jews under their jurisdiction.

These Hofjuden were sometimes self-seeking Jews, traitors who sacrificed their fellow-Jews for their own personal gain. And they were often Jewish patriots, genuine benefactors who exploited their position (even when necessary at immense personal risk, often at immense personal cost) to protect entire Jewish communities from the vicissitudes of persecution and expulsion.

The most wrenching examples were the Judenräte – the Jewish councils established by the Nazis y”sh in German-occupied Europe. Even today, three-quarters of a century after, historians are still divided as to whether the Judenräte contributed to the Shoah, or if they made no appreciable difference.

And maybe, at the very least, given the utter powerlessness of the Jews under Nazi occupation, those Judenrät might just have marginally improved the conditions of those Jews in the ghettos awaiting deportation. They might conceivably have managed to increase the daily food rations just enough to save a few Jews from dying of starvation. They might – just might – have raised morale of a few Jews sufficiently to give them the will to survive. And even that minuscule benefit might – just might – have justified limited collaboration with the Nazis.

Throughout history, traitors and patriots alike have done highly unpopular deeds, both of them claiming to have their own nation’s interests at heart. And sometimes, it has been difficult to tell them apart.

Two groups of Jews in Egypt claimed absolute loyalty to Israel and to G-d. One group collaborated with their Egyptian patrons, opposing Moshe and the Exodus, claiming that their devotion to Egypt and Egyptian idolatry were based on their loyalty to G-d’s Covenant with Abraham. And the other group seemingly collaborated with the Egyptian slave-drivers, genuinely protecting Jewish slaves with their own bodies.

A millennium later, when Yasson (Jason) was appointed Kohen Gadol (High Priest) in the second Holy Temple in Jerusalem (at the time under Greek occupation), Hellenised Jews collaborated with the Seleucid Empire, to the extent of taking up arms against the Maccabees, arguing that Hellenism would make Israel great, and the Maccabees with their militarism and religious extremism would lead Israel into darkness and destruction.

They claimed – maybe they even genuinely believed – that collaboration with the Seleucid Empire was the way into a brighter future for Israel. The Maccabees endangered everyone, they claimed, and so, as patriots, they fought for the Seleucids against the Maccabees.

At the same time, the Maccabees saw the corruption of the Kehunah (Priesthood), so they took up arms even against their own High Priest who was appointed by the Seleucids and collaborated with them.

As in Egypt, so in Israel a millennium later – two sides, both claiming to be patriots, both dong highly unpopular things, both taking up arms to fight for what they claimed was Israel’s best interest. Small wonder that the average Jew in Israel would have been confused.

The issue was only really resolved with the Maccabean victory over the Seleucids.

A quarter of a millennium later, in the year 66, with Israel under Roman occupation, the Great Revolt began. This first Jewish-Roman war began as a Jewish revolt against the oppressive taxation which the Romans imposed upon the province of Judæa, and a widespread refusal by the Jews to pay taxes. It swiftly escalated when the Romans plundered the Holy Temple, seizing what they claimed were unpaid taxes to the amount of 17 talents (the value of 1 metric ton/2,200 lbs of gold).

Fierce Jewish opposition to this Roman violation of the Holy Temple was met by even fiercer Roman reprisals, and within days Jerusalem, and much of the province of Judæa, was a war-zone.

Two factions emerged among the Jews:

On one side were the Kanna’im (Zealots), commanded by Yochanan ha-Levi of Gush Chalav in the Galilee, who took up weapons and fought tenaciously against the Romans.

On the other side was the appeasement faction, led by Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai opposed war, on the grounds that the Romans would devastate Israel.

The Talmud (Gittin 56a-b) records how his disciples smuggled him out of the besieged Jerusalem in a coffin so that he could meet with the Roman general Vespasian, of whom he made three requests: That Yavneh and its sages be spared; that the dynasty of Rabban Gamliel (who was descended from King David) be allowed to continue; and a physician to heal Rabbi Tzaddok (who had fasted for 40 years in his prayers that Jerusalem not be destroyed).

It would have been easy to view the Zealots as hot-headed fanatics who simply wanted some action, and equally easy to view Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai as a traitor who collaborated with the Roman enemy.

But Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was one of the greatest of the Tanna’im (the Talmudic sages from before the redaction of the Mishnah), the only sage not from the dynasty of the Nesi’im (Princes) who ever earned the title Rabban (a higher title than Rabbi). He was one of the most outstanding disciples of Hillel, who described him as “father of wisdom and father of the generations” (Yerushalmi Nedarim 5:6). Already forty years before the destruction of the Holy Temple he was acknowledged as the greatest Torah-leader of his generation (Yoma 39b).

Clearly, a Torah-giant of this stature was not a traitor or collaborator with the enemy.

But again, for a Jew living at the time, it must have been terribly difficult to decide which of the factions to follow. Indeed, even with the benefit of almost 2,000 years of hindsight, it is impossible to say definitively which side was right. Maybe, indeed, both sides were true patriots.

In Egypt, the question of which side were the patriots and which side were traitors was definitively decided by G-d Himself when those who wanted to remain in Egypt died in the Plague of Darkness. And, as the above-cited Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 15:20) continues, two years after the Exodus, free in the Sinai Desert, when G-d instructed Moshe and Aaron to gather 70 men to form the first ever Sanhedrin (Numbers 11:16), those same elders and officers who had given themselves to be beaten for the nation’s sake in Egypt were honoured with this greatness.

Today there are Jews in Israel and abroad who collaborate with our most vicious enemies against Israel, always claiming that their passionate, even desperate, love for Israel impels them to take a brave stand against Israeli policies – always, of course, for Israel’s own good.

Now that fact is that genuine patriots do indeed have to take a stand – sometimes a highly unpopular stand, sometimes even against their own leaders. And of course traitors, likewise, almost invariably take highly unpopular stands, almost invariably against their own leaders.

Is there a litmus test – a test whose results are infallible and cannot be manipulated – to determine who is a patriot and who is a traitor?

– Not always. Sometimes only time will tell. But there are two absolute yardsticks. The first is loyalty to the Land of Israel and to the Children of Israel’s right to it.

Any Jew who disparages the Land of Israel; any Jew who argues against the Return to Zion; any Jew who prefers exile over the ancient Jewish homeland, Israel; any Jew who collaborates with people or organisations which oppose Jewish national independence in Israel – is a traitor, not a patriot.

The second is self-sacrifice for fellow-Jews. Any Jew who is willing to suffer, even to the extent of giving his life, for his fellow-Jews, or for the Jewish nation as a whole, is a patriot, not a traitor.

For sure, there are Jews today for whom excoriating Israel is highly lucrative. They are the Jews who enjoy massive financial donations, sometimes no more than applause, for venting their hate for Israel in public.

No matter how much they protest that their criticism is a “criticism of love”, the results of the litmus test are infallible.


[1] This translation follows the understanding of Targum Onkelos, Targum Yerushalmi, Rashi, and S’forno. Targum Yonatan and Ibn Ezra translate “...through the desert of the Red Sea”.

[2] Levi, who went down to Egypt (Exodus 1:1-2), was the great-grandfather of Moshe, Aaron, and Miriam who led the Jews out of Egypt (Exodus 6:16-20, 1 Chronicles 5:27-29). Similarly, Hezron, who went down to Egypt (Genesis 46:12) was the great-grandfather of Nahshon (Ruth 4:19-20, 1 Chronicles 2:9-10), who was one of the tribal chieftains who led the Tribe of Judah out of Egypt (Numbers 7:12). Clearly, four generations could not have spanned 400 years. The 400-year countdown began with the birth of Isaac, and the Children of Israel were actually in Egypt for just 210 years.