Only the Few

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. 

32 thoughts on “Only the Few”

  1. Dear Rabbi Daniel Lapin;

    I began following you some few years ago and i have learn a lot. I am in South Africa. I love your teaching, it always reveal something that is not shared in contemporary Christian teaching.

    I want to know if no Jewish moved to the Southern part of Africa and never followed Moses.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Andrew,
      I am so happy to know that you are following from South Africa. I have very fond feelings for the people of South Africa for that was my birthplace. Johannesburg, to be precise. And yes, South Africa has always provided a very hospitable home to its Jewish population, sometimes numbering in excess of one hundred thousand souls.
      All the best,

  2. Rabbi and Mrs Lapin
    SHOCKING!!!! I never knew 20% left egypt and 80% stayed. We were taught all of them left egypt. In addition, I heard a pastor preach some of the egyptians also left with the israelites. Is that true?

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Vanessa–
      Yes, it is. There were some Egyptians who left but not because they chose good and God, but because they were opportunists who recognized that Egypt’s day on the stage of world history was over. They subsequently caused Israel no end of trouble. But that’s another teaching for another time.

  3. From the complaints of the majority of Israelites during their trip from Egypt to the Promised Land, I’d be inclined to think that most if not all of the Israelites left Egypt but only about a fifth of them were spiritually armed and ready to follow God’s plan as led by Moses. The 80% could have been physically ready – tired of the hard work, tired of being slaves, maybe even afraid after the plagues to stay behind – but still not spiritually ready to accept God’s direction and leave the “Egypt mindset” to worship God alone. If there were only 20% who left Egypt physically – who were ready to follow God wholeheartedly – they certainly didn’t give much evidence of their spiritual conversion during their wilderness experience.

  4. Teacher- i have commented in the past here that the 2012 Pew Poll on Judasim in the US polled 4000 US Jews and that 4 out of 5 indicated that our God had no relevance in their lives….(which means that there are a fifth at least who call you their Rabbi !!)

    I remember you Susan once replied to my comment that you dont put much credence in polls but agreed that yes, this poll, whether the percentage was actually correct or not, contained the truth about US Judaism….

  5. Mitchell Rapoport

    And 20% of American Jews vote for individual liberty. Nothing changes.

  6. ….”In other words, five is a number associated with being prepared and equipped for necessary action. ”
    This may be the reason David took 5 stones when about to face Goliath even though it only took one to accomplish the goal.

  7. This is a fine example of the Lapin truism that “Everyone needs a Rabbi.” Thank you for another fine expository teaching from the Torah, Rabbi Lapin and greetings from Cape Town, South Africa.

    Your explanation begs the following question:

    “What happened to the 80% of Jews who remained behind?”

    Or, did they in fact not remain behind but die in the plague of darkness – as I have read elsewhere in my (online) research?

    If they did die like this, then one would expect the Torah to tell us this as it would have been a significant event with a significant message. Does one find anything like this in the Torah?

    And, if the 80% did die in the plague of darkness, then of course 100% of the remaining Jews left Egypt which would beg another question: “Why does Exodus 13:18 use the word “one-fifth” instead of saying something like “all the obedient Jews left Egypt?”

    Turning to another topic altogether. I am an avid reader and collecter of your (and other Jewish / Messianic writings” that enhance my enjoyment in our God. I have noticed that a number of your books – especially the Thought Tools books are unavailable to be shipped to South Africa because of copyright laws. Who has the distribution rights of your writings for South Africa and how can I contact them?

    With my best regards to you, Rabbi and your wife Susan.

    1. Reid, thank you for your kind words. I will let my husband respond to your question, but in terms of getting our books in Africa or Asia, I am copying this from the FAQ section of our site: Africa

      We do not ship overseas to Africa, but we do work with two bookstores, one in Ghana, and one in South Africa who carry many of our products. Please email for bookstore information.
      ♦ Asia: We do not ship overseas to Asia. We do work with a bookstore in Singapore who carries many of our products. Please email for bookstore information.

      1. Thank you for pointing me in the right direction Susan. Crystol from your office has given me the name of a local bookshop that stocks your books. I’m glad to say the bookshop is less than 20 minutes away from where I live and I’ll be visiting it soon. Keep up the good work. Regards, Reid.

        I look forward to Rabbi Lapin’s further comments.

  8. Dear Rabbi, could you please make it possible to either order your book Aleph-Bet and have it sent, or download it from your website for those unfortunate enough to live outside the USA. Having only recently started listening and watching you, I am hungry to know more and want to learn biblical Hebrew and your book seems an excellent place to start…but I live in the UK 🙁
    We need God over here too Rabbi!

    1. Dear Laura, We do want to be clear that the Aleph-Bet book is written by Sarah Mazor under our direction as an introduction to the alphabet for children, though we added a special touch for adults. We are working on making it available on Kindle and will let people know when we are successful. Buried Treasure: Secrets for Living from the Lord’s Language is, of course, written by us and available as a Kindle download.

  9. I NEVER cease to be astounded by WHAT and HOW you and your wife teach……thx

  10. I am not well but try to follow along. The medication I was prescribed seems so popular that even my home isn’t safe and the amount is being adjusted. I’m sure that all this is for political reasons. I am trying to purchase these and others but try to use the post system. Is this possible?

  11. Dear Rabbi, this 20/80 principle in connection with the Hebrews departing Egypt I must have heard you expostulate at least three times on your AJW show. Yet it never fails to amaze me. Each time I marvel at its implications, and also at the failure of all translators to penetrate to the precise meaning. WOW.

  12. Shocking! I had no idea, after years of teaching Sunday School, that only 20 percent of the Israelites left Egypt. Was I also wrong when I taught that they numbered a million in the Exodus? I’m dismayed to think what else I’ve gotten wrong. You wouldn’t happen to have a book about common Biblical mistakes taught by Christians, would you?!’

    1. A book like that would be wonderful.

      Isn’t it also a little disturbing how the different translations provide very different interpretations of the Hebrew? I wonder whether the translation houses shouldn’t in future include Rabbis for guidance.

    2. Cheryl, in cases like this, these aren’t “mistakes.” A translation by definition has to replace a word in one language with one or at most three words in another. But the Bible in Hebrew is like a code book. Ancient Jewish wisdom has thousands of words unpacking what only a few words in the written Torah mean.

  13. I love it. Truly a case of buried treasure in plain view for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. It makes perfect sense as you explain it that 20% of the Israelites left with Moses but the rationale was nothing I would have focused on even though I have been subliminally of the 80/20 phenomenon for a while. Now, how to apply the rule to today’s problems. Blessings to you and Miss Susan and all your family.

  14. It’s about time I leave a comment Rabbi Lapin. I’ve been reading your posts and watching your interviews and teachings over YouTube for over a year now. I just bought your book Business secrets from the Bible. All I will say now is thank you, for as a Christian who loves the Lord and his Word, you have enhanced my life, helped me to understand the Bible better, and given me keen insights and Aha moments. Thank you for your hard work, diligence, and love for the word of God. You are a shining light of God’s wisdom, and boy does the world need it. I’m sure you’ll hear from me again. Take care, Dan

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Dan–
      Wonderful to receive your kind letter-thank you. Thank you also for purchasing Business Secrets from the Bible–I hope it brings you the intended blessing.
      Looking forward to hearing from you again.

  15. I only recently learned this fact that only 20% of the Isarealites in Egypt left with Moses. I used this fact in a lesson for my youngest granddaughter teaching her the dangers of following the crowd. I told her to be careful of who she does follow…it could God’s man (Moses) or it could the mass who ultimately missed God’s best.

    1. Yes, Judith. The minority opinion isn’t always right, but it can be. We do have to learn to take responsibility for thinking things through and not just going with the flow.

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