‘Day of the Jackal’ Parashat Vaera 5783

Recently, Northrop Grumman (NG), in association with AeroVironment, presented a mock-up of their Jackal missile. The Jackal is a precision guided missile for use against battlefield targets such as tanks. NG calls the Jackal a “sprint loitering weapon”. According to NG, the Jackal can fly out to 100 km and then have an on-station time of at least fifteen minutes: “The Jackal concept provides for a turbojet-powered loitering weapon system… designed to sprint to target areas to engage directly or loiter until a target is identified.” Sprint and loiter enables a missile to get to a target quickly, enabling the engagement of time-critical (pop-up) targets, and loitering enables the missile to remain on-station while lying in wait for a target. “Sprint and loiter” has always been a sort of holy grail for rocket scientists because sprinting and loitering require two very different kinds of motors: Reaching the target as quickly as possible requires high velocity, typically provided by a rocket motor, while loitering in the target area requires a much lower velocity, typically provided by a propeller. Jackal attempts to solve this problem using a variable-speed turbojet, which enables a rather slow sprint combined with a rather fast loiter. By compromising on performance, Jackal attempts to get the best of both worlds. Nevertheless, the only way to get real sprint and loiter capability is to somehow marry a helicopter with a rocket and that would require a miracle to work.

A similar kind of compromise appears in the Portion of Vaera. The Torah takes time off from its discussion of the redemption of the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery to discuss the lineage of Moshe and Aaron[1]. While in the previous portion, we were told only that Moshe’s mother was a daughter of Jacob’s son, Levi, who married a “man from the Tribe of Levi”, in the Portion of Vaera, the Torah reveals their true identities [Shemot 6:20]: “[Levi’s grandson] Amram took into his [household] as wife his father’s sister Yocheved, and she bore him Aaron and Moshe”. Levi’s marriage to his aunt is halachically problematic. Marrying one’s aunt[2] is considered incestuous and is one of the fifteen sexual relationships explicitly forbidden by the Torah. How could it be that the redeemer of the Jewish People, the person who would one day give them G-d’s Torah, come from an incestuous relationship?

The easiest answer would be to assert that before the Torah was given, the Jewish People were not bound by the commandments. Only after the revelation at Sinai did it become forbidden to marry one’s aunt. The problem with this suggestion is that it is widely accepted that our forefathers kept the entire Torah, even the Oral Law and later Rabbinic prohibitions[3]. While we can interpret this assertion metaphorically, many medieval commentators interpret it completely literally. For instance, the Ramban[4] asks how our forefather, Jacob, could marry two sisters, Rachel and Leah, when the Torah explicitly forbids this under the rubric of incest. The Ramban answers that Jacob was not bound by the Torah’s commandments as long as he was outside the land of Israel, living with his father-in-law, Lavan, in Haran. As soon as Jacob re-entered the land of Israel, however, the prohibition was reinstated and, as a result, Rachel died. Perhaps we could maintain that Moshe was indeed the result of an illicit relationship and the only reason that relationship was permitted was because it took place in Egypt. We could take yet another step and suggest that Moshe and Aaron had to die in the desert because had they entered the Land of Canaan, they would have retroactively been branded as “mamzerim (people born of a forbidden sexual relationship)”. Another problem with Amram marrying Yocheved is her age at the time of Moshe’s birth. According to our Sages in the Midrash, Yocheved was born just as Jacob as entering Egypt from the Land of Canaan. As Moshe was 80 years old when the Jews left Egypt, 210 years later[5], it means that he was born when she was 130 years old. Bearing a child at this age is nothing less than miraculous. To summarize, fitting in all of the desired parameters into the story – that Amram married his aunt, that the Jews spent only 210 years in Egypt, that our forefathers kept all of the commandments – results in the “Jackal Syndrome”: a compromise with a performance impact that can be resolved only via miracles.

The commentary of Shadal[6] turns everything on its head. His explanation is so revolutionary that I hesitate even to mention it. Shadal begins his explanation by noting a discrepancy so immense that it simply cannot be overlooked. In the beginning of the Book of Bemidbar, one year after the Egyptian exodus, Moshe takes a census of the Jewish People. The family of Kehat, the son of Levi, has [Bemidbar 3:28] 8600 men. Now Kehat had four sons: Amram, Yitzhar, Hevron, and Uziel. The Torah clearly states that the Amram’s family numbered three people: Amram, Moshe, Aaron, and their six children, for a total of nine. This means that the other three sons had to number 8591 men, meaning that Yitzhar, Hevron, and Uziel each had, on average, about three thousand grandchildren. This is incomprehensible. Shadal’s revolutionary proposal is that “a few generations” existed between Kehat and Amram and that these generations are not explicitly mentioned in the Torah. In other words, Amram was not Levi’s grandson. This hypothesis leaves more time for the Jewish exile in Egypt. The reason that our Sages in the Midrash assert that the Jewish People lived in Egypt for 210 years even though the Torah explicitly states that they lived there for [Shemot 12:30] 430 years is that the three generations between Levi and Amram do not add up to 430 years. As a result, we must understand that the 430 years mentioned in the Torah began before Jacob went down to Egypt. But if multiple generations existed between Levi and Amram, then the 430-year exile in Egypt can be taken at face value and this is sufficient time for the family of Kehat to balloon from one person to 8600 people. This is also sufficient time for a nation of seventy Jews who went down to Egypt to balloon to 600,000[7]. The only way to go from 70 to 600,000 in only three generations is via supernatural fertility. Indeed, this is precisely what our Sages in the Midrash assert: Jewish women gave birth six babies at a time. But while Shadal’s hypothesis addresses many of our questions, it contans at least one far-reaching ramification that he does not mention. While Yocheved is no longer Amram’s aunt – many generations separate the two such that even according to Rabbinic law, she was permissible to him – more than 300 years separated them. This makes not only Moshe’s birth, but also, Yocheved even being alive, a miracle that trumps the law of nature. This returns us to the Jackal Syndrome: In order to fit in all of the desired parameters, we either must compromise on performance or rely upon miracles.

My wife, Dr. Tova Sacher, would look at this problem differently. The Torah is not a performance specification. The Torah does not define the range of a missile, the size of its warhead, or its time on target. The Torah is a book of ethics: it teaches us how to be better Jews. The Midrash is a collection of sermons in which each sermon teaches us a lesson rooted in the Torah. The precise number of Jewish People at the exodus is unimportant – even the Torah tells us that there were [Shemot 12:37] “About 600,000 people”. What was important was the fact that even under inhuman conditions, they continued to thrive. And whether our forefathers ate food with OU or Triangle K certification is unimportant. What was important was that they understood what G-d wanted from them without Him telling them. Trying to weave a tapestry of Midrashim into a factual representation is futile. The specifications of the weapon are unimportant. The fact that G-d Himself engages in battle for us is.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5783

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Geisha bat Sara, Hila bat Miriam, Avraham Menashe ben Chana Bracha, Batya Sarah bat Hinda Leah and Rina bat Hassida.

[1] The reason the Torah inserts the lineage of Moshe and Aaron at this location is a topic for another essay.

[2] Strangely enough, a woman is permitted to marry her uncle. In fact, according to some opinions, it is considered meritorious for a man to marry his niece.

[3] See Rashi on Bereishit [26:5].

[4] Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, known by his acronym “Ramban”, lived in Spain and in Israel in the thirteenth century.

[5] See Talmud Tractate Megilla [9a] and Rashi on Shemot [12:40]

[6] Rabbi Samuel David Luzzatto, known by his acronym, “Shadal”, lived in Italy in the eighteenth century.

[7] 600,000 men between the ages of twenty and sixty.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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