Friday, January 05, 2024

The true explanation of the Chamushim Midrash

Remember the famous Chamushim Midrash? The way it was taught to us only one-fifth of the Jewish people left Egypt. But there is much more to the story...

Found in the Mechilta, the midrash hinges on the word "chamushim" in Exodus 13:18. Literally meaning "armed," it appears throughout the Tanakh in reference to weaponry. Even the modern Hebrew word for ammunition stems from the same root (tachmoshet). The Mechilta itself acknowledges this, and tells us at the start that this is real meaning of the word.

But based on the word play, the Sage suggest "chamushim" could also mean "one-fifth."

Many folks jump to conclusions with this midrash, using it to draw grand lessons or fuel pre-existing agendas. For instance, I recently came across a statement suggesting that all diaspora Jews today are akin to the 4/5 of the Jews who chose not to leave Egypt - which seems like an overly simplistic and one-dimensional way to discuss other people (not to mention nasty!).

But before we all go down that rabbit hole, let's take a closer look at the text itself.

Here's the catch: The actual Midrash references other rabbis who offer varying numbers – one-fiftieth, one-five-hundredth, even one-five-thousandth! (And the part about the stay-behinds dying during the plague of darkness doesn't apply to the 4/5 but to the 4999/5000!!)

Now, let's be honest, those numbers don't exactly add up. As Ibn Ezra said: "We have enough problems with the Muslim scholars who ask how, in 210 years, 600,000 men above the age of 20 could descend from 55 men" - and now you want to multiply that by 5 (or 5000?)

So, what's the real deal? The point seems to be all about emphasizing the exceptional nature of the survivors. Picture it like a grandparent saying, "You're one in a million!" – it's not meant to be a literal statistic, but an expression of how special you are. The idea seems to be that the people who made it to the end of the exile were survivors who had done something exceptional.

Those people who busy themselves wondering what happened to the 4/5 (or the 4999/5000!!!) are exactly like the overly concrete thinker who hears the expression "you're one in a million" and then devotes time and energy and imagination trying to figure out what happened to the other 999,999.