Parshat Bo: Loyal legions

It is not easy to be a soldier in any army.

Rabbanit Shira Smiles

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Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein

“Forward, march!” The general gives the order and the troops obey.

In this parsha, Bnei Yisroel, the Children of Israel, get a new designation and name. They are called tzivaot, legions, first, “On that very day the legions of Hashem left the land of Egypt,” and later, “On that very day Hashem took Bnei Yisroel out of the land of Egypt in their legions.” What is the significance of this new designation, and how does the first designation of “the legions of Hashem” differ from the more general legions?

The first obvious difference in that the first group of legions left on their own while the second group Hashem took out. The Kli Yakar, alone in his interpretation, explains this difference as referring to the proselytes and the erev rav, the Egyptian multitude that attached itself to Bnei Yisroel and left Egypt with them but whom Hashem had no intention of redeeming. These are the people that Hashem refers to later as“your nation” when He informs Moshe of Bnei Yisroel’s committing the egregious sin of the golden calf.

Most of the other commentators are much less judgmental, from The Ramban who interprets these legions as the women and children to Rav Chaim Abramsky who interprets these legions as the elite of Bnei Yisroel who left of their own accord as soon as they were able, in contrast to those who were willing to stay in Egypt after the final plague, assuming that they would no longer be persecuted, and Egypt would then be a fine place to live. These were still called legions, but they were not referred to as the legions of Hashem.

Rabbi Leff explains in Shiurei Binah that as long as every Jew has within him that untaintable bit of Jewish sould, the “pintele yid,” he remains part of the community of Israel, among its legions, and his core abhors sin. But how does one rise from the general multitude and become one of the elite, of the legions of Hashem? What does Hashem want from us?

In Torat Moshe, the Alshich Hakadosh, among others, writes that the legions of Hashem are not earthly beings, but the heavenly angels that had accompanied Bnei Yisroel in Egypt. These angels left immediately and waited for Hashem to take Bnei Yisroel out of Egypt. But if the legions of Hashem indeed refers to Bnei Yisroel, then it means that we need to aspire to become as angelic as possible. This is possible if we act like the soldiers in a legion. Just as each soldier takes personal responsibility for his part in a mission and reports directly to his commanding officer, so must each of us be careful in our task and report to our commanding Officer, writes Rabbi Reiss citing the Kli Yakar in MeiroshTzurim.

Rabbi Mizrachi explains what it means to be in Hashem’s army. In Birkat Mordechai he explains that a soldier’s entire being is dedicated to his King. His mission becomes his identity and is visible in his uniform. It is his privilege and his obligation to serve and protect the honor of his King. Therefore, the life of a teacher of Torah by definition must be identified with a full Torah lifestyle. As Rabbi Pincus notes in Tiferet Shimshon, a soldier, especially a soldier in Hashem’s army, can have no personal agenda, but must be a walking emissary of his Commander and identifiable as such. The Orthodox Jew comes back and pays his debt, even when he can easily get away without paying.

            There is no question that we were imbued with pure, unshakable faith in Hakodosh Boruch Hu through our redemption from Egypt. But the Sifsei Chaim, Rabbi Chaim Friedlander points out, based on Ramban, that from that experience we also accepted upon ourselves the yoke of Heaven. We are obligated to serve Him, for He took us out of Egypt. Just as a soldier responds with, “Yes, Sir,” to every command, just as an angel accepts every mission, so did we respond with “Naaseh vnishma – we will do and we will listen.”

Hashem redeemed us from Egypt to be free men. After all, Pesach is called zman cheiruteinu, the season of our freedom. Yet when we celebrate the Seder, we celebrate as well with symbols of our servitude, with better herbs and charoset. What is there to celebrate about the servitude? Rabbi Druck discusses this very question in Aish Tamid and adds a corollary question. Our Patriarch Avraham prayed so hard to try to void the decree against the destruction of Sodom, yet when Hashem told him that his own descendents would be in harsh servitude for 400 years, Avraham accepts it and prays not at all. Why?

Rabbi Druck explains that today we have no concept of what a true eved is, what it means to be a true servant. A servant today dreams of the day he will be free with no master over him. A true servant, on the other hand, thinks only of serving his master, of fulfilling each of his master’s wishes with no thought of other personal desires. A true eved Hashem is this kind of servant, totally devoted to Hashem’s wishes.

To be able to internalize this mindset, we needed to undergo the enslavement in Egypt, an enslavement that stripped us of any personal desires, even of the desire for freedom itself. Only through this experience would we be able to commit totally to do the will of Hashem and recognize how that commitment is the epitome of true freedom. This is the “great riches” Hashem promised Avraham his descendents would acquire when they left Egypt, and this is why Avraham did not pray to Hashem to spare them the enslavement. It was only through this experience that we could become legions of Hashem and live lives devoted to holiness. It is those of us who feel that closeness to Hashem and constantly think of how they can bring honor to Hashem that are called legions of Hashem, writes Rabbi Yerucham Levovits.

It’s not easy to be a soldier in this army, armed only with minimal weapon and going forth on your mission, but that is exactly what Bnei Yisroel did when they left Egypt with only the matzah dough on their backs and their full faith in Hakodosh Boruch Hu, writes Rabbi Yitchak Zilberstein in Aleinu Leshabeiach.

But tzvaot Hashem can also be interpreted homiletically by reading tzvaot as a compound word, tzava ot, a legion of letters and signs, writes the Sefat Emett. We are an army comprised of the twenty two letters of the aleph bet and we bear the signs of our army, on the bodies of our men – the brit milahtzitzit and tefillin, and on our homes – mezuzah and Shabbat.

Rabbi Nosson Scherman in an introductory essay to Rabbi Munk’s The Wisdom of the Hebrew Alphabet presents a fascinating interpretation of how Bnei Yisroel represents the legions of Hashem. Translating tzivot Hashem as a legion of letters, Rabbi Scherman reminds us of the Kabbalistic theme that Hashem first created the twenty two letters of the alphabet, and used them to write the Torah which then became the blueprint of all creation. These letters, then, are holy, and they contain within them every aspect of creation and its continued existence.

Each human being is a composite of all that preceded mankind in creation, continues Rabbi Scherman. As such, each individual is a complete world unto himself and symbolically contains within him all twenty two letters of the aleph bet. Therefore, if one saves one human being, one saves an entire world. This is even more so with the Jewish nation and especially with a tzadik who mirror those letters to the world. When a Jew sins, he sullies those letters and dims the visible light of God in the world, while each mitzvah enhances that light.

There are 600,000 letters in the Torah (rounded out), and 600,000 Jews left Egypt. Each one of Bnei Yisroel represents one letter of the Torah. Every one of us has the ability to be part of the holy legion of Hashem and elevate the world through our actions based the unique gifts and challenges Hashem has placed within us.

The aleph bet is the “brick and mortar and soul of the universe, as it is as it is of individuals with their personal capacities.” It is through these letters that Hashem “renews each day, perpetually, the work of creation.” But if within a Torah scroll, the blueprint of the world, even one letter is missing or one letter touches another, the entire scroll is invalid. Therefore, each individual must work within his own“blueprint” to achieve his mission as fully as possible without trying to usurp a mission meant for another.

Therefore Bnei Yisroel hoped to get some insight into their mission. The Medrash tells us that at Sinai the heavens opened and Bnei Yisroel saw the angelic hosts and legions, each under its own banner signifying its individual mission. Bnei Yisroel wanted to emulate these legions, and adopted flags and banners of their own under which they would then encamp. Bnei Yisroel understood, writes Peninei Daas, that just as each soldier must maintain his own position at his assigned post, so must each of us maintain our own mission.

The Slonimer Rebbe, the Netivot Shalom, continues this theme. Bnei Yisroel wanted to know their purpose, and not leave as a ragtag multitude of people. They wanted to accept the Torah as their national mission and hoped to achieve success with their personal missions within the greater army of Hashem. Like the angels, each of us has a name, and each of us travels in our own orbit. We don’t know what our mission is, and it may appear at any time.

One clue to our mission and self perfection is that it entails that trait or activity with which we struggle most, for that is where the evil inclination, yetzer horo is expending its greatest energy. We are meant to work on personally accepting the yoke of heaven. Blessed is he who is ready to do so on his own, but he who fights his mission will be swallowed up into the depths of the raging seas and, like Yonah, will nevertheless still be forced to accept his God given mission. Let’s be like our ancestors who yearned to be under our banner proudly, continues the Netivot Shalom, and accept that Hashem created us for a unique purpose on this earth.

Rav Yaakov Mecklenburg notes in Haktav VehaKabbalah that there is a difference in meaning between tzava – legion, and chail –army. (This is not to be confused with Tzahal, Tzva Haganah LYisroel. Although we translate this acronym as Israel’s “army” you will note that Rabbi Mecklenburg’s definition fits very well with the initials.) Chail denotes physical power and strength, (chail Poras uModai), while tzava is about coming together with a desire to accomplish a unified will. Bnei Yisroel is gathered together to do Hashem’s will as their own.

It is this desire, ratzon, that creates the conduit, the tzinor, to bring Hashem’s blessings to the world, writes Rav Moshe Scheinerman in Ohel Moshe. We must view Torah observance not as a burden but as a privilege. Then we can go about our lives with simcha and joy.

Rabbi Brazile in Bishvili Nivra Haolam suggests a method to arouse our inner melody that connects our soul to Hakodosh Boruch Hu. Find a melody or song that resonates within you and arouses your soul to devotion to Hashem. Keep that melody available in your mind and in your heart, even if only for a few moments, and reignite the feeling of attachment and love for Hakodosh Boruch Hu and for the mission He has entrusted within each of us. May we all be inspired to serve Hashem with love, and may we each merit to fulfill our personal missions with joy.

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