How long did the agony of servitude and exile afflict our ancestors in Egypt? Well, that depends on the source you quote. Often chronology is a matter of perspective. For example, how long did World War II last? Most Americans would say from December 7, 1948 until September 2, 1945, but most Europeans began counting from the invasion of Poland on September 1. 1939. However, most Chinese would date the War from July 7, 1937 with the Marco Polo Bridge Incident with Japanese Imperial Forces outside Beijing. Future historians will probably say that WWI and WWII were the same war, and it all began July 28, 1914. You see, the duration of historic events is often a matter of perspective.
We tend to agree that WWII ended with the signing of the document of surrender on the deck of the battleship USS Missouri. Similarly, we declare the end of the SHIBUD (enslavement) on the dawn of Nissan 15, when B’nei Yisrael marched triumphantly from the land of Egypt. But how to count the length of any historic event is largely based on when it all began.
The problem of numbering the years of Israelite exile arises because in the Covenant Between the Parts it says: Know well that your offspring will be strangers in a land not theirs, they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years (Breishit 15:13). However, in our parsha it says, ‘The length of time that the Israelites lived in the land of Egypt was four hundred and thirty years, at the end of four hundred and thirty years…all departed (Shmot 12:40-41). Nu, what is it 400 or 430?
In reality, there can be three answers to the question: How long was the exile of B’nei Yisrael? For Ya’akov Avinu and his family it was 210 years (rabbinic approach to how long the Jews were actually in Egypt), for the progeny of Avraham Avinu (beginning with the birth of Yitzchak) it was 400 years, counting years we weren’t the rulers of Israel and for Avraham himself it began with his interactions with God to found this nation, and was 430 years. This entire calculation follows the perspective of Rav Avraham ibn Ezra, and it basically provides a cogent approach to the conundrum. But let’s check out two other views of the issue.
The very rational approach of Rav Shmuel David Luzzatto (Shadal, 1800-1865) basically assumes that the number 430 is accurate. The problems arise when one takes the genealogy listed in chapter six of Sefer Shmot literally. It says there that Amram (Moshe’s father) was the son of Kehat. Rav Shadal explains that this doesn’t mean that he was literally the son; it means that he was a descendant, perhaps a few generations later. Therefore, we don’t arrive at 210 years in Egypt by adding Kehat’s years to Amram’s years to 80 years of Moshe. There could have been many intervening years because our genealogy was abbreviated.
Rav Shadal further explains that this also resolves another problem: How could 70 souls become 600,000 adult males in 210 years? Well, because it was 430 years, and, although, remarkable was not necessarily miraculous. No such reproductive miracle is mentioned in the text, and the Midrash about each birth being sextuplets needn’t be accepted as literal.
From the rational approach of Wissenschaft des Judentums (German for The Science of Judaism) team, let’s hear the ideas of the great Kabbalist, Rav Chaim David Azulai (the Chida, 1724-1806). He suggests that it was appropriate for the Jews to have been in slavery for 430 years, but God had compassion upon them, because the bondage was so onerous, and the actual servitude was ‘only’ 86 years, as if any slavery isn’t already too much.
But why these numbers? Because the gematria of ELOKIM (the Divine name which denotes judgment) is 86. The Jews were originally slated to be in slavery for five times 86 or 430 years. This is based, I believe, on the fact that when God tells Moshe about the redemption process, there are four languages of redemption. Most of us, of course, drink four cups of wine at our Pesach Seder, based on those four terms HOTZEITI, HITZALTI, GA’ALTI, and LAKACHTI (Shmot 6:6-7). However, there are some optimistic souls who, half way through Hallel, add a fifth cup of wine for the redemption which has begun with the return to Eretz Yisrael, based on the term HEIVEITI (verse 8).
In reality, the Jews in Egypt were suffering so much that God showed compassion and only afflicted them with 86 years of actual slavery. Most opinions concur that the Jews were actually in Egypt for 210, but, again, only the final 86 were as slaves. This reduction in years of servitude is hinted at by the reaction of the Jews to Moshe when he explained the redemption process: they would not listen, because their spirits were crushed (M’KOTZER RUACH) by the cruel bondage (verse 9). The gematria of M’KOTZER is, of course, 430. They only actually served for the last 86 years which is, again, the gematria of ELOKIM, but also of servitude, AVODA.
Why does the Torah record numbers? It isn’t a straight history book, recording all the facts and details in chronological order. It does record the events which will guide and inform our behavior, and puts in the numbers which will have some impact on our spirituality. Tanach multitasks. It teaches law, ethics, history and so much more, but every detail recorded is there to impact are lives and souls.
I’m not sure if we always get the coded messages right, but we shouldn’t desist from the effort of finding meaning in every last particular.