Most teachers follow the rule that if one student asks a question, more than one student is thinking the same question. So when I repeatedly get asked one question, I know that it is time to rephrase the answer I have been giving and try to explain it more fully.
The question I get concerns our teaching that only about 20% of the Israelites left Egypt. I understand that this isn’t part of general Sunday School lessons, but that is because it is a message for adults with enormous implications.
In fact, the Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto, is credited with popularizing this eighty-twenty principle although I have no idea if he knew that it is found in the Bible. There are plenty of examples of this rule that will set your head nodding.
If you enjoy cooking or baking, you probably use about 20% of your recipes 80% of the time. You probably wear about 20% of your clothing 80% of the time. Perhaps about 80% of your social connectivity comes from interactions with only 20% of your friends. Those in sales know that about 80% of their sales revenue comes from 20% of your customers.
It is less a rule and more an observation that most of our important results come from a small part of our effort. Another variation is that about 20% of the people in any society or community are exceptional and stand out. Perhaps 80% of the good work and charitable endeavors in your town are performed by 20% of the citizens. Likewise, another 20% of the citizens perpetrate about 80% of the crime and destructiveness.
I first learned of this rule when I was nine years old. It was a few weeks before Passover and my father, the late Rabbi A.H. Lapin, was teaching me Exodus 13:18. English translations widely differ on translating one Hebrew word in that verse. Here are three variations.
…and the children of Israel went up harnessed out of the land of Egypt. (21st Century King James Version)
…and the children of Israel went up by five in a rank out of the land of Egypt.” (King James Version)
…and the children of Israel went up armed out of the land of Egypt. (American Standard Version)
The Hebrew word being translated is CHaMuShiM. If you have already gained a glimpse into the majesty and mystery of the Lord’s language in my book Buried Treasure, you know that Biblical Hebrew words possess several layers of meaning, each one adding to a complete understanding.
This word “CHaMuSHiM” has as its root letters CH, M, and SH (Hebrew reads right to left).
ח מ ש
SH M CH
These letters form the word for the number five in Hebrew. Aha! Things are beginning to make more sense.
It isn’t shocking that five can be associated with being armed as that word is based on having one’s hands prepared to be used for action, whether as a fist or to hold a weapon.
In Genesis 41:34, Joseph advises Pharaoh to take a fifth of the land of Egypt (20% taxation, in other words) to prepare (be armed) for the coming seven years of scarcity. Do you recognize one of the words?
…וחמש את-ארץ מצרים, בשבע שני השבע…
And he (Pharaoh) should ‘fifth’ the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty…
Returning to our verse from Exodus, we understand why ancient Jewish wisdom translates it as:
…and the children of Israel went up ‘fifthed’ (1/5) out of the land of Egypt.
In other words, five is a number associated with being prepared and equipped for necessary action. Considering that the Egyptian army was the world’s top military force, there is little in the natural world with which the Israelites could realistically properly arm themselves. However, they could prepare themselves spiritually by being ready to change their servitude from Pharaoh to God. Given this opportunity, the use of the word חמשים, CHaMuSHim, tells us that only 1/5 or 20% of the nation chose to do so. Only 1/5 of the people were prepared for a new reality. Astounding!
Life in Egypt certainly wasn’t pleasant for the Israelites yet eighty percent of them chose to align with that country. The truth is that like the Israelites, most of us eventually become accustomed to our existence no matter how painful, and we prefer to endure it rather than risk the fear of the unknown. Heading off into the desert with Moses was just plain scary. Eighty percent of the Israelites dismissed him as a dangerous crank.
Now, as well, times are challenging. 80% of people resignedly adjust to living permanently in their predicaments, but we can choose to be among the 20% who reject an unacceptable reality and boldly build a bridge to better times. It does require considering steps that most people would reject. It does require facing down our fears. To do so, we need to overcome our inertia to stay just as we are.