From the Bones of Mitzrayim, the Birth of Yisrael

600 Egyptian Generals, 600 Gedolei Yisrael

Setting the stage for the encounter at the Yam Suf, the Torah makes special mention of the “chosen chariots” of the pursuing Mitzriyim and their number: 600.

Yisro hears about Krias Yam Suf and comes to Sinai. He then advises Moshe how to organize Bnei Yisrael into kehillos, and his numbers too are recorded in the Torah. He assigns judges up to groups of thousands…and no more.

Rabbi Eliyahu Margolis of Mir-Yerushalayim says that for every makkah brought upon the Mitzriyim, there was a corresponding gain in kedushah to Bnei Yisrael. Makkas Bechoros, for example, brought new kedushah to the bechorim of Bnei Yisrael. This theme recurs. In Beshalach, Rashi says that the Mitzriyim pursued Bnei Yisrael “as one man with one heart.” In Yisro, that phrase is used to praise Bnei Yisrael. Hashem planted the middah of unity among the doomed Mitzriyim so that its impression would reappear for kedushah among Bnei Yisrael.

In the Haggadah the Tanna’im are quoted as outdoing each other to expand the number of makkos in Mitzrayim and at the Yam Suf, because the more makkos the Mitzriyim got, the more illnesses Bnei Yisrael would be protected against. The shmirah of Yisrael is built on the structure of the destruction of Mitzrayim.

In Ha’amek Davar, the three times “chozek yad” appears in Bo are explained as follows: The first mention refers to the common goals of king and nation. The second relates to the general being fit for his task, and each soldier being devoted to the cause of his nation. The third indicates the need for sufficient weaponry. These correspond to 1. the devotion between Hashem and Bnei Yisrael; 2. the Gedolim being fit for their position, and  each knowledgeable Jew a loyal soldier serving Hashem; and 3. the need for “chozek yad” in Torah, the “sword” of Bnei Yisrael.

The message is clear. Achieving national goals requires not only heartfelt desire to adhere to those goals, but also a clear structure of national organization. The nations are obligated to employ natural means to sustain and advance their nationhood. While the content of our nationhood — Hashem and His Torah — emphasizes our uniqueness, the  means are built upon a structure shared by all nations.

Now we can understand the mention of “600 chariots.” Having investigated all spiritual systems, Yisro understood that destruction of impurity imparts a corresponding kedushah; Mitzrayim’s downfall reflected Yisrael’s future success. Kedushah would emerge from the doomed 600 generals; the destruction of Egypt would be the genesis of a fledgling Jewish organization.

When it became clear that Bnei Yisrael must be organized, Yisro realized that “leaders of thousands” from among 600,000 (approximately) yields 600. Moreover, just as Pharaoh assigned secondary chariots in addition to the chosen 600, there must also be sub-kehillos in Yisrael. The Jewish leaders of tens, fifties, and hundreds were not Yisro’s invention — Pharaoh’s battalions were surely divided into tens, fifties, and hundreds, derived from the same structure that generated the 600.

The Meaning of 600

In mispar katan, the first digit can be counted without the zeroes that follow it. The number 6 alludes to brias ha’olam.

It first appears in Bereishis: “…for in six days Hashem created the heavens and the earth…” Six is seven with the seventh hidden, for seven represents Shabbos, in which melachah is “hidden.” The seventh day is kodesh l’Hashem, Hashem’s day, “for He is the Hidden One.”

Creating Am Yisrael was tantamount to creating a new world. Just as the world was created with  asarah maamaros, Am Yisrael would be built on a nation destroyed through eser makkos. (Maharal connects the makkos and the maamaros in his peirush on the Haggadah.) Similarly, just as creation required a cycle of six days for a kiyum, so Yisrael, a nation of kiyum, would be created through, and based on, a structure of six, salvaged from Mitzrayim’s own structure of six.

How did the underlying pattern of Mitzrayim, whose people were known as “shtufei zimah,” come to be based on such supernal math? The Shechinah permeates all of reality, even such a place; but open revelation of holiness requires a holy origin. Of all the brothers, why did Yosef merit to be the one to pave the way for galus and geulas Mitzrayim? Since Mitzrayim’s distinguishing characteristic is zimah, the pioneer Jew needed to be already “inoculated.” Yosef, having resisted eishes Potifar, fit the bill.

Chazal indicate Yosef haTzaddik relates to zera, “seeding,” or “planting.” He is the sixth ro’eh among the Ushpizin. By instituting purifying measures into Egyptian society, such as national circumcision, Yosef embedded his spiritual “seed” — his aspect of “six”— into the internal structure of Mitzrayim. His influence would guide the evolving Egyptian hierarchy, as revealed in the 600 chosen chariots.

Why Mitzrayim?

Why did Yisrael have to be built on the bones of Mitzrayim?

Yisrael’s purpose is connecting to the eternal. There are two reasons for this. First, since Yisrael is the chosen of Hashem, Who is eternal, we must share this eternality. Two, since Yisrael’s purpose involves preserving Torah knowledge that will never be given again, we must forever pass it down from generation to generation. The Haggadah encourages children to ask questions, so they will be involved in our story and remember it and live it. Only then will they pass it down to their children.

Our survival and growth specifically in a country of shtufei zimah empowered our ability to resist the temptation of fleeting pleasures in favor of longer-term pleasures and involvements that tend to increase our national longevity and reinforce our integrity. That is why we had to be born in Mitzrayim.

How does this affect the avodah of this season? These parashiyos bracket Tu BiShvat, the new year for trees. As the sap starts to flow in the trees, Torah starts to flow within man. Just as new life grows from dead, spiky wood, and  Yisrael was born out of the wreckage of galus, man is recreated at this time from the failures of his past. Our Mitzrayim is the limitations to growth resulting from a narrow view of our battles and failures, especially in the realm of Torah. In truth, the failures are necessary for growth. A warrior puts away the past and moves on with confidence and direction.

May Hashem help us to see ourselves as indispensable warriors within His still-hidden malchus, so that it should be revealed in our days.