‘Hard Numbers’ Parashat Bo 5780

I was taught at an early age to be very careful with numbers. Words can be fuzzy but numbers demand precision. Say you tell your customer that your missile has a range of exactly 20 kilometres. One day, he goes out to test his new missile at its maximum range. On that particular day there is a vicious headwind and the missile falls out of the sky 200 metres before the target. You will have an extremely irate customer on your hands. A smart contractor will either advertise the maximum range as slightly lower than its actual maximum range, such as “Maximum range is 19 kilometres”, or it will speak in broader terminology, such as “Maximum range is greater than 15 kilometres”. The use of fuzzy terms such as “greater than” might be sufficient for sales brochures but in a Requirements Specifications Document, it is always best to go with the hard number.

There is no better example of a Requirements Specifications Document than the Torah, and hence it is surprising that the Torah contains an example of a number that simply cannot be correct. After G-d kills the Egyptian first-born, Pharaoh runs to Moses and summarily throws the Jewish People out of Egypt. Before the Jewish People get on their way, the Torah summarizes their stay in Egypt [Shemot 12:40-41]: “The length of time that the Israelites lived in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years. At the end of the four hundred and thirtieth year, to the very day, all the ranks of G-d departed from the land of Egypt.” Rashi, the ultimate medieval commentator, raises a red flag. It is impossible that the Jewish People spent 430 years in Egypt. Here is why: Before Moses and Aaron first go to Pharaoh, the Torah [Shemot 6:14-27] briefly reviews their genealogy: Our forefather, Jacob, had a son named Levi, who had a son named Kehat, who had a son named Amram. Amram had three children: Aaron, Miriam, and Moses. The Torah specifies how long Kehat and Amram lived: Kehat [Shemot 6:18] lived for 133 years and Amram [Shemot 6:20] lived for 137 years. The Torah also reveals [Shemot 7:7] that Moses was 80 years old when he and Aaron first stood in front of Pharaoh. Finally, the Torah mentions [Bereishit 46:11] that Kehat was one of the seventy people who accompanied Jacob to Egypt. Now do the math: Adding the years of Kehat plus the years of Amram plus another 80 equals 350 years. This was the maximum number of years that the Jewish People could have spent in Egypt. The actual number had to be less than that, assuming there was some overlap in the lives of Kehat, Amram, and Moses. Indeed, our Sages in the Midrash assert that the Jewish People lived in Egypt for only 210 years[1]. Why is the Torah giving us performance specifications that it so obviously cannot meet?

One possible answer is that the Torah is citing an approximate number. That is to say, “The length of time that the Israelites lived in Egypt was approximately four hundred and thirty years.” Unfortunately, this premise is untenable. Immediately before the Torah tells us how long the Jewish People lived in Egypt, it tells us how many of them left Egypt [Shemot 12:37]: “about six hundred thousand men on foot, aside from children”. Here, the Torah uses the Hebrew preface “ke”, meaning “about” or “approximately”. Regarding the number of years spent in Egypt, however, the Torah does not use the preface “ke”, meaning that the Jewish People spent exactly four hundred and thirty years in Egypt.

Rashi, quoting from the Midrash Mechilta, solves our problem by teaching that the 430-year exile timer did not begin when Jacob went down to Egypt. The clock started ticking many years earlier, at the Covenant Between the Parts (Brit bein HaBetarim)[2], when G-d had told Abraham [Bereishit 15:13] “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years[3]”. According to this explanation, G-d, in His infinite wisdom, chose to sentence the Jewish People to exile. But in His infinite mercy, He chose to significantly reduce the amount of time the Jewish People spent in slavery by means of some creative timekeeping.

The Rambam, possibly the greatest of all Jewish scholars, who lived in Spain and North Africa in the twelfth century, analyses the length of the Egyptian exile in his “Epistle to Yemen”[4]. Comparing the 400-year predicted exile with the 210-year actual exile, the Rambam concludes that it is impossible to fully understand a prophesy until it comes to fruition. Only then can the prophesy be retroactively understood. The Rambam consoles the Yemenites, telling them, “Now, if so much uncertainty prevailed in regard to the date of the emancipation from Egyptian bondage, the term of which was fixed, how much more would it be the case in respect to the date of the final redemption, the prolonged and protracted duration of which appalled and dismayed our inspired seers.” He proceeds to castigate those people who attempt to predict the date of the final eschatological redemption, asserting that they do more harm than good.

Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher, who lived in Spain at the turn of the fourteenth century, takes another step down this path. He notes that the Book of Daniel contains three potential dates of the future redemption and warns, “We may be certain of one thing. If we deserve it, the redemption will occur on the earliest of the three dates mentioned”. Leave the calculations to G-d. Numbers are not set in stone. We can hasten the redemption if we do our part.

I would like to propose a completely different way of interpreting the Midrash Mechilta. I suggest that the Midrash is teaching us a critical lesson, not about redemption, but about exile. Let’s take a quick snapshot of Abraham on the eve of the Covenant Between the Parts. On G-d’s behest, he had moved to the Land of Canaan, where he became a stranger in a strange land, albeit his own land. Nearly immediately, a famine forces him to move to Egypt, where his wife is kidnapped. After this downturn, he finally begins to gain some traction. He gains a group of followers and a trusty sidekick, Eliezer. He accumulates great wealth. He defeats an alliance of four powerful kings who had been terrorizing the region. G-d promises him a son who will one day inherit the entire Land of Canaan. Things are definitely looking up. But then G-d tells Abraham that his offspring “shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years”. Everything has been for naught. Abraham has been building castles on the sand. As soon as he heard G-d’s decree, for all intents and purposes he had entered exile and so the clock to redemption began to tick.

The message is clear: In order to be considered “in exile”, the Jewish People did not require hard labour, bricks and mortar, or an Egyptian passport. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lived for years in exile in Beer Sheba and in Hebron. Exile is not a location, it is a condition. Exile is a perception of despair that stems from the lack of permanence, from the knowledge that everything that you have ever accomplished will one day turn to dust.

If this is how we define “exile”, then we must redefine “redemption” accordingly: Redemption is the perception of hope that stems from the firm belief that what we have built will continue to grow and thrive, through ourselves and through our children.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, David ben Chaya, Shachar Yehuda ben Irit, and Tehila bat Adi.

[1] This number is based on tradition and cannot be verified using dates mentioned in the Torah.

[2] The same Midrash also mentions that the Jewish People left Egypt 400 years after the birth of Isaac. This creates a huge conundrum: If they left Egypt 400 years after Isaac was born, which was also 430 years after the Covenant Between the Parts (CBP), it means that the CBP took place 30 years before the birth of Isaac. As Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was born, it means that he was 70 at the time of the CBP. However, the Torah states explicitly that Abraham was 75 years old when G-d told him to move to the Land of Canaan. This means that the CBP occurred before Abraham moved to Canaan. The Ramban addresses this problem in a way that is no less problematic. Rabbi Yaakov Meidan offers a slightly less thorny solution, see https://www.etzion.org.il/en/berit-bein-ha-betarim-covenant-between-parts. This is most definitely a topic for another lesson.

[3] See the previous note.

[4] The “Epistle to Yemen” was spurred by a rash of persecution against Yemenite Jews and the subsequent rising of a pseudo-Messiah.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five 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 2001 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.