The Good Deeds in Leaving Egypt
Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16 )
Shemos, 13:18: "The children of Israel were chamushim when they went up from Egypt."
Rashi, 13:18, Dh: Chamushim, [means that] one in five left and four parts [out of five] died in the three days of darkness.
Targum Yonasan, ibid: "...Each one of the Children of Israel came with five children when they left the land of Egypt."
Targum Yerushalmi, ibid: "The people left the land armed with good deeds when they left the land of Egypt."
The Torah states that the Jewish people left the land of Egypt 'chamushim'. The Sages offer three, seemingly unrelated interpretations of what this means. Rashi, in his second explanation, based on the Mechilta and the Midrash Tanchuma, says that it is related to the Hebrew word for five, 'chamesh' and it means that one fifth of the Jewish people left Egypt, as the other four fifths died during the plague of darkness. The Targum Yonatan also connects the word to the number five but records that the meaning of chamushim is that each family left with five children. Finally, the Targum Yerushalmi explains the word chamushim to mean 'armed', but not literally that the people were armed with weapons, rather it means that they were armed with good deeds.
There are a number of questions on these various explanations: The first is that it seems difficult that such seemingly disparate interpretations are made for a single word. Secondly, the Be'er Yosef, written by Rabbi Yosef of Salant, questions the explanation of the Targum Yonatan that each family went out with five children. He notes that the simple understanding of the Targum is that each family had no more or less than five children - it is very hard to accept that each family had the same number of children. The Be'er Yosef also questions the Targum Yerushalmi that they left armed with good deeds. What good deeds does this refer to? The Sages tell us that when the Jewish people left Egypt, they did not have any mitzvot in their merit, therefore, God gave them the mitzvot of circumcision and the Paschal lamb. Accordingly, what 'good deed' does the Targum Yerushalmi refer to?
The Be'er Yosef explains that the three explanations are closely linked. He first focuses on Rashi's explanation that four fifths died; he suggests that only adults died, but their children were innocent and were therefore left alive. Consequently, four fifths of all the children were orphans. This leads to the Targum Yonasan's interpretation that they each left with five children: The Be'er Yosef explains that the Targum Yonasan does not literally mean that that each couple had five children but that they left with five sets of children. The surviving adults adopted four sets of children who were left without parents, hence, in addition to their own children, each couple left with five sets of children.
With this, the Be'er Yosef connects the Targum Yerushalmi that they left with good deeds - their good deeds were the fact that each surviving adult voluntarily adopted four sets of orphans, despite their own difficult situation. It is hard enough to bring along one child on a normal journey, but in this case, the people were in a highly uncertain situation, about to leave for a difficult journey through the desert, and yet they gladly brought along many helpless children. Thus, the Torah is alluding to the great kindness that the people did as they left Egypt.
The Be'er Yosef then cites a Torah scholar who suggests that this good deed is alluded to in the verse in Jeremiah when God says, "I remembered for you the kindness of your youth...going after me in the desert in an unsown land". The kindness here may allude to the kindness of bringing out the orphans, even though they were about to go into a barren desert.
There are many lessons that can be derived from the Be'er Yosef's explanation. One is that there are times when a person is undergoing his own tribulations and may feel 'exempt' from helping other people in their suffering, while he is so burdened with his own troubles. While this may be understandable in a certain sense, the example of the kindness that the Jewish people did as they left Egypt teaches that doing kindness when a person is in his own difficult situation, is considered a very great attribute, to the extent where the Prophet alludes to it in referring to the people's kindness as they set out into the perilous desert.
1. Rashi, in his first explanation, does indeed explain that it means that they left 'armed' with weapons.
2. Yeremiah, Chapter 2.