Beshalach 5778

Armed with good deeds[1]

…וחמשים עלו בני-ישראל מארץ מצרים
…and the Jews left from the land of Egypt “chamushim[2]

Shortly after the Jews had begun their Exodus from Egypt, the Torah uses an unusual word to describe them. It says the Jews left חמושים, “chamushim“. The commentators[3] explain that the simple meaning of this word means “armed”. They were going to encounter many battles in the future, and they had to bring the proper provisions. However, the Targum Yerushalmi[4] explains the word “armed” metaphorically. It says that they were armed with “good deeds”. In a completely different manner, Targum “Yonasan”[5] explains that the verse is telling us that each the 600,000 Jewish men between twenty and sixty[6] had with them five children[7]. This is based on the fact that the root of the word חמושים is חמש (five). However, both of these explanations have many difficulties.

Targum “Yonasan” seems to be implying that all the males who were counted had exactly five children. It’s rather unusual that each person had the same number of kids; no more, no less. Why would this be? The Targum Yerushalmi is even more surprising. Saying that the Jews were armed with good deeds implies that they had many of them. Which good deeds is this referring to? In last week’s parsha, which chronologically was only a day earlier, Rashi explained[8] that they were severely lacking in mitzvos. This is why Hashem gave them the mitzvos of the Passover offering and of bris milah. Without these mitzvos, they wouldn’t have had the merit to be redeemed. They were considered completely bare of good deeds[9]. If so, when did they become “armed” with mitzvos?

These two explanations of “chamushim” can be explained with a third: Chazal inform us[10] that there were wicked Jews who didn’t want to leave Egypt. So that they couldn’t prevent their brothers from leaving, Hashem had them die in a plague[11]. The number of these people equaled four-fifths of the population. Therefore, the Torah says the Jews left Egypt “chamushim”, meaning one-fifth of the population. However, it is obvious[12] that the children of these wicked Jews weren’t punished. They did nothing wrong, only their parents. This plague created a problem that now four-fifths of the Jewish children had no parents. Since the Exodus from Egypt was total, no Jew was left behind, who would take these children to the wilderness? Who would take care of and raise them?

This is what the Targum “Yonasan” is teaching us. It’s not that every adult had exactly five children. The Torah is telling us that every adult had with them five families of children: one of their own, and four from the four-fifths that had become orphaned. They took the children with them when they left Egypt. It’s curious though. According to the explanation that “chamumish” means one-fifth of the Jews left Egypt, why is the Torah picking this moment to tell us this fact? The Jews had already left Egypt; it would have been more appropriate to state this fact when they were about to leave, when the Torah stated their total population count.

The reason is the Torah wants to publicize this amazing chesed that the Jews did for their deceased brethren. All of the orphaned children had no one to care for them, and the remaining Jews stepped up to the task. When a person goes on a vacation, they aren’t so hesitant to take along someone else’s child. They’ll be willing to spread the fun. However, when they’re going on a distant journey to the unknown, it would be understandable if they would be less considerate. They have enough on their hands with their own family. Despite this, the Torah is telling us that the Jews took children that were not their own with them when they left Egypt.

It turns out then that the three explanations of “chamushim” tell one consistent story: Only one-fifth of the Jews left Egypt, as four-fifths didn’t want to leave. The ones that wanted to stay had all their children become orphans. As a result, the one-fifth that left took with them five families of children: one their own and four that were not. This was a tremendous chesed. Therefore, the Jews certainly left Egypt armed with good deeds[13].

Good Shabbos

[1] Based on Be’er Yosef to Exodus 13:18

[2] Exodus loc. cit.

[3] Targum Onkelos and Rashi ad loc., based on Mechiltah and Shemos Rabbah 20:19. See Ba’al HaTurim who explains (based on the Yerushalmi Shabbos 6:4) that the root of the word is חמש (five), because the verse is alluding to the five types of weapons listed in Ezekiel 39:9

[4] Ad. loc., which says: מזיינין בעובדא טבא

[5] Ad. loc., which says: וכל חד עם חמשא טפלין. To Exodus 12:37 it says: והנון כשת מאה אלפין גובריא…בר מטפלא חמשא חמשא לכל גברא

[6] Exodus loc. cit., with Rashi and Sifsei Chachamim. See also Bava Basra 121b and Rashi to Numbers 14:29

[7] Seichel Tov to Exodus 13:18 also says this. See Torah Sheleimah Chapter 13 § 263 who brings somewhat similar midrashim

[8] to Exodus 12:6

[9] Ibid, quoting Ezekiel 16:8

[10] Mechiltah, brought by Rashi to Exodus 13:18

[11] Rashi to ibid 10:22 explains this was the purpose of the plague of darkness. It’s interesting to note that this is the only plague for which Rashi tries to find a reason. See Biurei Maharai ad. loc. (by the Terumas HaDeshen) who explains based on Genesis 8:22. There, G-d promised to never let day or night cease. Therefore, there had to be some justification to affect a week of darkness

[12] It’s not clear to me if the Be’er Yosef means children under the age of thirteen, who aren’t held accountable for their actions even in the Earthly court, or if he means under the age of twenty, who are according to Shabbos 89b, are exempt from Heavenly punishment. The explanation that the Jews needed to care for and raise these children implies to me that he means those under the age of thirteen

[13] The Be’er Yosef adds that he heard from one sage that this provides a new explanation of the verse in Jeremiah 2:2: זכרתי חסד נעוריך וגו’ לכתך אחרי במדבר בארץ לא זרועה, I remember the chesed of your youth…going after Me in the wildness, to a land not planted. The typical understanding of the verse is it refers to the Jews as they were just born as a people; how they listened to Hashem without any qualms. They didn’t bring any provisions or ask where their sustenance would come from (Rashi to Exodus 12:39). Now the verse can be read that Hashem recalls the chesed the Jews did with the youth, by raising children not their own, as they left Egypt