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What proportion of the Jewish population left Egypt?

By Rabbi Jonathan Tawil
January 29, 2015

The Jews finally left Egypt. What a sight – millions of slaves freed in the most magnificent way! The Torah tells us, “So Hashem turned the people toward the way of the Wilderness to the Sea of Reeds. The Children of Israel were Chamushim when they went up from Egypt.” (13:18). Chazal go to lengths to describe whatis exactly meant by the word “Chamushim”.

Rabenu Bachya explains the word “Chamushim” to imply that the Bnei Yisrael were armed with weapons when they left Egypt. Although a nation under HaShem’s direct protection should not need to bear arms to defend itself, the Torah nevertheless demands that we do so. By conducting ourselves in as normal and natural a manner as possible, we minimize the need to deviate from the laws of nature, through which Hashem controls the universe. If necessary, Hashem will work miracles on our behalf, but we must try to minimize His miraculous input and focus on our Hishtadlut.

Rashi and the Pesiktah D’Rav Kahana 11:11 explain that the word “Va’Chamushim” is spelled without a “Vav”. This leaves it open to be read as “Chomesh”, which means “one-fifth”, and implies that only one-fifth of all the Jews in Egypt actually left with Moshe. The majority, who were unwilling to assume a Torah lifestyle, refused to leave, and thus perished during the plague of darkness so that the Egyptians would not witness their deaths. They were so assimilated, they had gotten used to the Egyptian lifestyle – why should they leave? On the contrary, now that they were free, they wished to stay and live in Egypt as free citizens; they felt there was no need to make an effort, go through the wilderness on a long track to fight a war with the seven nations in Israel and conquer a land they knew little about.

Hashem saw this as a lack of appreciation and it was a decision that caused their demise – they chose to be like Egyptians and therefore they were punished together with the Egyptians. Four fifths of the Bnei Yisrael perished and only one fifth came out of Egypt.

But we have to ask ourselves: taken at face value, this Midrash is almost too astounding to believe. Did only one-fifth of the Jewish people really leave Mitzrayim, while all the rest perished? Why is there no record in the Torah of such a monumental tragedy, and how could the Egyptians fail to notice such a massive loss of life?

Moreover, there is an interesting Mechilta that brings an opinion thatstates that it wasn’t one in five that survived the plague;rather it was one in fifty, or even one in five hundred, or possibly even more (as sworn to by R. Nehorai)!This Mechilta begs explanation. Is it possible that so many of the Bnei Yisrael died? Are we to think that only one in every 500 Jews escaped Egypt?

R Shimon Schwab gives an awesome explanation.

When Kayin killed Hevel, Hashem appeared to Kayin and told him “KolDmaiAchicha” – “your brother’s blood is calling out from the earth.” Our Sages ask why did Hashem use the word “Dmai” – which seems to mean “bloods” – in the plural? Surely he only killed Hevel – one person and therefore Hashem should have said “Kol Dam Achicha?” Our Sages explain that Hashem was referring to all the potential future generations of Hevel that had now been killed through Kayin’s one action. Kayin’smurderous act caused the blood of all the future generations to rise up against him – that is the meaning of “Demai” in the plural.

Similarly, when Moshe killed the Egyptian task master and the Pasuk states he looked “KohVeKoh”, Rashi explains this to mean that Moshe, with his RuachHakodesh, looked into all the future generations of this Egyptian and saw that there was no righteous person to come from him. It is only then that he killed the Egyptian.

R Shimon explains in a similar lightthat the Midrash here is not to be understood in the literal sense. Rather the Midrash is referring not only to those that died in Egypt, but also to all those future generations of Jews that were to come from these people.

In reality, only a select few failed to make the grade and perished in Mitzrayim. Where the Midrash claims that only one-fifth (or one five hundredth) left is to help place that loss into perspective. If we were to take that relatively small number of Jews and extrapolate the number of their descendants (that they surely would have produced in a few generations), their loss becomes exceedingly great. Their numbers would total in the millions, and exceed the number of Jews who actually left Egypt. Understood thusly, the Midrash teaches us how tragic the loss of even a single Jew really is when viewed with a wide-angle lens.

Sometimes our actions might seem small – we might think nothing of them – but the truth is that their ramifications can last forever.

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