As the parsha relates to us the final step toward complete liberation, the splitting of the sea, there is a very enigmatic verse, “The B’nei Yisroel went up chamushim from the land of Egypt.” The term chamushim is not a common Hebrew word and many of the classic commentators on the Torah give various opinions as to what this means and why it’s so important to relate this information just before the final step of liberation.
Rashi explains that the word has a similar etymology as the word “chamesh,” meaning the number five. He goes on to explain that the verse is referring to the fact that only one-fifth of the Jewish population actually left Egypt; those that didn’t believe or that didn’t want to leave died during the plague of darkness.
Targum Yerushalmi, an Aramaic translation of the Torah written or compiled from the Second Temple period until the early middle ages, states that “chamushim” means armed, not with traditional weapons per se, but rather with good deeds.
Finally, Targum Yonoson ben Uziel gives a third explanation that “chamushim” means they went out with five children each.
What does it mean they went out with good deeds? Our tradition teaches us that the Jewish people were assimilated into Egyptian culture to such an extent that had God not taken them out at that moment, they would have forever been sunk into the moral depravity of Egypt; God gave the mitzvos of the korban Pesach and bris milah in order to give them some merits through which they could warrant redemption.
What does it mean they had five children? Does Targum Yonoson ben Uziel mean to say every single family had the exact same number of children? That’s seemingly very remote and even if true, why would it be relevant?
Rabbi Yosef Salant gave a beautiful explanation in his work “Be’er Yosef” that ties all three explanations together. While it’s true that four-fifths of the Jewish people perished in the plague of darkness, this refers only to the adults, not the children, who are obviously not punished for their parents’ beliefs. So when every Jew finally went out of Egypt, 80 percent of the children were orphans. This means that the one-fifth that left took care of their own families and four other sets of children as well.
This explains their good deeds; they looked beyond their own immediate needs and the needs of their immediate families and with great self-sacrifice took it upon themselves to adopt and nurture four other families of children. This then is what Yonoson ben Uziel is saying, not that they went out with five children each, but rather five sets of children.
The prophet Micah tells us that the miracles that happened in Egypt will happen again in the final redemption. The fact that the Torah relates this incredible act of selflessness and sacrifice to us just before the splitting of the sea is a message to all: The secret to bringing about the final redemption is acts of goodness, sacrificing our own comfort and needs to help others.
It is no coincidence that this Shabbat, the 10th of Shevat, is the yahrtzeit of the previous Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn of blessed memory, the sixth Chabad rebbe, and one of the most remarkable Jewish personalities of the 20th century. In his 70 years, he encountered every conceivable challenge to Jewish life: the pogroms of czarist Russia, communism’s war on Judaism, and melting-pot America’s apathy and scorn toward the Torah. The Rebbe was unique in that he not only experienced these chapters in Jewish history – like many of his generation – but as a leader of his people, he actually faced them down, often single-handedly, and prevailed.
His fight to preserve Judaism in communist Russia was characterized by his all-consuming self sacrifice – an unequivocally selfless devotion to the physical and spiritual needs of his fellow Jews and unshakable faith in what he stood for. He dispatched teachers and rabbis to the farthest reaches of the Soviet empire, establishing a vast underground network of schools, mikvahs, and lifelines of material and spiritual support. Stalin’s henchmen did everything to stop him. In 1927 he was arrested, beaten, and exiled; but he stood his ground.
Upon arriving in New York after his rescue from Nazi-occupied Warsaw in 1940, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak took on a no less formidable challenge: the frigid spiritual atmosphere of the Western world. From his wheelchair, he rallied the Jewish young of America under the cry that “America is no different,” that also in this bastion of materialism the timeless truths of Torah can take root and flourish. He established yeshivas, a publishing house for Jewish books, a social service organization, and community support networks throughout the country. By the time of his passing in 1950 he had laid the foundation for the global renaissance of Torah-true and chasidic-flavored Jewish life, heralded by his son-in-law and successor, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson of blessed memory, who took the reigns of Chabad on the 10th of Shevat, 1951.
It was this same self-sacrifice and dedication on behalf of every Jew that is elucidated in our parsha by, “The B’nei Yisroel went out chamushim from the land of Egypt.” Both rebbes changed the face of world Jewry forever and imbued into their followers this ideal of love of your fellow man and the willingness to give of yourself physically or spiritually to help another.
May we all dedicate ourselves with the inspiration of these two leaders of Am Yisroel and make sure that every day we utilize the blessings God has given us to take care of our fellow man, reach out to others, take responsibility upon ourselves to alleviate the pain and suffering of others, and be there to share Jewish values and mitzvot with our fellow Jews.
Open your Shabbos table to a new person, make sure that your Pesach seder this year includes someone who has never experienced a seder or perhaps has no place to go. Then you, too, can say that you are ready to leave this final exile “chamushim” – armed with good deeds and love of your fellow man.