As the parsha relates to us the final step toward complete liberation, the splitting of the sea, there is a very enigmatic verse: “The Children of Israel went up chamushim from the land of Egypt.” The term chamushim is not a common Hebrew word, leading many of the classic commentators on the Torah to offer explanations of its meaning and its relevance.
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.
A third explanation comes from Targum Yonoson ben Uziel, which says 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 therefore gave them the mitzvot of the Pesach sacrifice and circumcision 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 seems very unlikely, 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 exited Egypt 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.
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.