You can’t get to freedom by riding on a train.
The only way to freedom is right on through your brain!
– Peter Udell, “Freedom,” Shenandoah (1974 musical)
As we grow older and more knowledgeable, we often find that matters are more complicated than we had thought. One example is the beginning of Bereisheet: the simple reading is that Hashem created the universe in six days. Yet many Orthodox people today, to reconcile Bereisheet with science, have come up with multiple ways that those “six days” could have lasted billions of years. (See Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin, The Challenge of Creation, chapters 9-17.) Another example is the beginning of Shemot: the simple reading is that Hashem took the Jewish people out of Egypt. Yet a midrash seems to say that it’s not so simple – almost none of them left!
The midrash in question is the Mekhilta, commenting on an unusual word at the beginning of Beshalach. The Torah tells us (Shemot 13:17-18) that Hashem took the Jews out of Egypt via the scenic route through the desert, instead of the direct route through Philistia, because if the newly-freed slaves were faced with war, they would want to return to Egypt. The next words are “The Children of Israel went up from Egypt chamushim.” What does this last word mean, and how does it relate to the context?
Rashi, following the Mekhilta, gives two opinions. First, the peshat (simple reading) of chamushim is “armed.”<1> Rav Yehuda Herzl Henkin, the posek at Nishmat, points out that according to this approach, the verse is telling us that Hashem wanted the Jews to avoid war, even though they were armed when they left Egypt.<2> Second, the more radical opinion in Rashi and the Mekhilta is that chamushim comes from the word for five, chamesh,<3> and that only one in five Jews left Egypt. In Rav Henkin’s words, this approach explains the verse to mean that Hashem “took into the desert those who did leave, because they were only a fifth: they were demoralized because the majority of their brethren had stayed behind.”<4> Only twenty percent of the Jews left Egypt! Believe it or not, the one-in-five opinion is the most conservative one in the Mekhilta. The full text reads:
Another opinion: “Chamushim went up” means one in five. Some say one in fifty. Some say one in five hundred. Rabbi Nehorai says: “[I swear by] the Temple Service! It was not one in five hundred that went out [but fewer]. It says, ‘I made you into myriads like the grass of the field’ (Yechezkel 15:7), and it says, ‘The Children of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and multiplied and became huge’ (Shemot 1:6) – a woman would give birth to six at one time. And you say that one in five hundred went out?! [I swear by] the Temple Service! It was not one in five hundred that went out [but fewer]. Rather, many Jews died in Egypt. When did they die? During the three days of darkness, as it says, ‘People could not see each other’ (Shemot 10:23). They were burying their dead, and they thanked and praised Hashem that their enemies could not see and rejoice at their downfall.”<5>
Talk about depressing! This midrash asserts that the vast, vast majority of the Jewish people – whether 80%, 98%, 99.8%, or even more – did not leave Egypt. Why not? Shemot Rabba explains that “There were sinners among the Jews who had Egyptian patrons, and they had wealth and honor there, [so] they didn’t want to leave.”<6> In Rav Henkin’s words, they were “disinclined to trade flesh-pots for freedom.”<7>
What happened to this reluctant majority? The first three opinions in the Mekhilta do not elaborate, so it’s possible they assume that the majority simply stayed in Egypt and continued assimilating over the years until they lost their Jewish identity completely. (It wouldn’t be the last time that happened in Jewish history.) However, Rabbi Nehorai at the end of the Mekhilta argues that Hashem killed them all during the Plague of Darkness. This especially bothers Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164), who isn’t so happy with the whole thing:
A midrash says one in five hundred left. This is a lone opinion, which is debated, and is not at all a received tradition [which would be binding]. We already have enough grief from the Muslim scholars, who say: “How is it possible that fifty-five men who went down to Egypt [with Yaakov] could be the ancestors, over 210 years, of 600,000 men over the age of twenty?”<8> … In [every] plague that consumed Egypt, the Jews were spared. Most of the Egyptians’ cattle died during Dever (the Plague of Cattle-Disease), while not one of the Jews’ cattle died (Shemot 9:6). In the Plague of the Firstborn, not a single Jew died. In the Plague of Darkness, it says, “There was light for all the Jews” (Shemot 10:23). During the plagues in which Egyptians died, Jews did not die. So during a plague (darkness) in which no Egyptian died, how could all the Jews die until only one in five hundred survived?! [Besides, that would mean] the Jews did not have light in their homes, but the darkness of disease and the pitch-black of death! Since only a tiny part was left from a huge nation, this would not have been redemption for the Jews but a sick evil! That’s the opposite of the text. The whole thing is a midrash; don’t rely on it. Maybe the one who said it at the outset had a hidden reason (sod).
I found a clever solution to Ibn Ezra’s problem in Ma’ayan Beit HaShoevah, the Hebrew commentary on the Torah by Rav Shimon Schwab (1908-1995, the leader of the Breuer’s community in Washington Heights, Manhattan). Like Ibn Ezra, he cannot accept the premise that millions of Jews were wiped out in a plague much worse than the ten mentioned in the Torah.<9> Rather, Rav Schwab suggests a reinterpretation of the Mekhilta:
It seems [possible] to explain this based on Rashi on the verse [after Kayin kills Hevel], “The sound of your brother’s blood calls to Me from the earth” (Bereisheet 4:10). [Rashi cites] the Sages’ explanation, “‘Your brother’s bloods (plural)’ – his blood and the blood of his descendants [who will never be born].” So too here, you can say that only a few people died. Among the Jews there were several completely evil people, who did not deserve the redemption, and they died in the three days of darkness. However, had they remained alive, they could have been the ancestors of millions of people through the generations. This is what the opinions in the midrash are arguing about: whether these descendants would have numbered four times 600,000, or forty-nine times 600,000, or 500 times 600,000. (It’s possible that the debate is how to do the math: from the Exodus until the building of the Temple, or until the end of all the generations, or until some other time.) There is a clear proof for our thesis from Rashi’s explanation of why they died in the three days of darkness and not another time. [Rashi, following the end of the Mekhilta, suggests] that Hashem did not want the Egyptians to notice that any Jews died; so they died and were buried during the darkness, and the Egyptians did not notice they were missing. If we take the midrash literally, that most of the Jews died at that time, it would certainly be inconceivable for the Egyptians not to notice such a tremendous loss! Rather, it is clearly as we have explained.
In other words, Rav Schwab defuses the explosive numbers of the midrash by applying them to future generations.
I would like to present a variation of this approach and apply the numbers to past generations.<10> Except perhaps for a few individuals (as Rav Schwab suggests above), all the Jews alive at the time of the Exodus left Egypt. This was truly cause for celebration. However, the vast majority of the Jews who had lived in Egypt over the previous 200 (or 400) years didn’t make it to the finish line. Of all those millions of Jews who had hoped and prayed to be freed from slavery, only one in five (or one in fifty, or one in five hundred) actually left Egypt.
According to this, “The Children of Israel went up from Egypt chamushim” means that the newly-freed slaves were sobered by the thought of all their relatives who had lived and died in Egypt. Perhaps it was the sight of Moshe (in the next verse) carrying Yosef’s bones which triggered the realization that the Jews were not only free, they were survivors as well.
1. The reading of chamushim as “armed,” based on a similar usage in Yehoshua 1:14, appears in most translations and commentaries. The big names are the Mekhilta, Rashi (in his first approach), Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, and Ramban. Targum Onqelos says “umezarzin,” which Rashi thinks is the same as “armed,” but might in fact mean “battle-ready.” Compare William Gesenius, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Boston, 1850), p. 327, who is convinced that chamushim means “fierce, active, eager, brave in battle.”
2. Rav Yehuda Henkin (1945-), “BeShalach,” in his New Interpretations on the Parsha (Hoboken: Ktav, 2001), pp. 60-62, note 3. http://web.archive.org/web/20010426025743/http://www.nishmat.net/Parsha5759/P-Beshalach-Y-Hen.html He first wrote it up in Hebrew, in his Chibbah Yeteirah (printed in the back of Bnei Banim, Vol. 2), p. 58.
3. Other interpretations of chamushim assume the “five” reading. Targum Yonatan says each family had five children. The Mekhilta and Midrash HaGadol say the Jews left in the fifth generation since arriving in Egypt (if you start counting from Yaakov). Another opinion in the Midrash HaGadol suggests there were five times as many non-Jews as Jews in the Exodus. Interestingly, some combine the numerical and military approaches to chamushim, and conclude that the Jews arranged themselves in five military camps (Biurei Maharai, by Rav Yisrael Isserlein (“the Terumat HaDeshen,” 1390-1460)), or that each man carried five weapons (Talmud Yerushalmi, Shabbat 6:4, according to Korban HaEdah).
4. Rav Henkin, op. cit.
5. Mekhilta deRabbi Yishmael, Beshalach, Masekhta deVayehi Beshalach, petichta, s.v. vayasev Elokim.
6. Shemot Rabba 14:3, taking the approach that the Hashem brought the Plague of Darkness as a pretext to kill off the Jews who didn’t want to leave. Rashi follows this midrash in his commentary to Shemot 10:23.
7. Rav Henkin, op. cit.
8. In other words, it’s not helping any to multiply the population by five hundred, in which case there were 300 million Jewish men in Egypt, not counting all the women and children. Ibn Ezra proceeds to answer the Muslim critics, but we have omitted that here.
9. After all, it would be obscene to dismiss the Holocaust by pointing out that “only” six million Jews died, out of sixteen million in the world alive beforehand. Almost two-thirds of world Jewry survived, yet we consider the Holocaust the worst plague we ever suffered. How can we accept that a plague that exterminated more than twice the percentage killed in the Holocaust is overlooked by the peshat of the Torah, and moreover that this plague was brought by Hashem himself!
10. I am borrowing this explanation from a different context. There is a puzzling statement in Sanhedrin 111a which seems to say that only two out of 600,000 Jews left Egypt. That would be a smaller percentage than the number of Jews who survived the Treblinka death camp! How can this statement make sense? In their commentaries on this gemara, the Maharal (1526-1609), Rav Yaakov Emden (1697-1776), and Rav Yosef Chaim (“the Ben Ish Chai,” 1833-1909) all independently offer the same explanation. It refers to the total number of Jews who had lived in Egypt over the centuries. (Of course, the Ibn Ezra’s population problem is exacerbated tremendously by this approach.) For an alternative explanation of this gemara, see Rav Meir Simchah of Dvinsk (1843-1926), Meshekh Chokhmah, Shemot 6:7-8.