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Why Exile?        

 

How long were the Jews in Egypt? The Torah presents two versions

Version 1 [Shemos 12:40-42] - (Context: Immediately preceding plague of 1st born)

Now the time that the children of Israel dwelt in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years. It was at the end of the four hundred and thirty years, and on that very day all of Ad-noy's multitudes went out of the land of Egypt. a night of watching for Ad-noy, to bring them out of the land of Egypt.

Version 2 [Bereishis 15:12 - 16] - (Context: Bris bein HaBesarim - covenant between the parts)

As the sun was setting, a deep sleep fell upon Avram; and behold, a dread of deep darkness fell upon him.And He [Ad-noy] said to Avram: "Know for sure that your descendants will be foreigners in a land that is not theirs. They will enslave them and oppress them [for] four hundred years.. You will join your fathers in peace; you will be buried at a good old age. The fourth generation will return here, for the sin of the Emorites will not be complete until then."

It's a good ole-fashioned contradiction! Either Bnei Yisrael were in Egypt for 400 years or 430 years? Rashi quickly points out that neither option is viable[1].

If you might suggest that they were in Egypt 400 [years], [this could not be so] because Kehos was of those who descended to Egypt. If you calculate the [total] years of Kehos, Amram and the eighty years of Moshe when [Bnei Yisrael] left Egypt, you will find only [a total of] 350. (And you must still subtract from that all the years that Kehos lived after Amram's birth and that Amram lived after Moshe's birth.)

Rashi implores us to do the math and it becomes clear that Jewish stay in Egypt could not have been close to 400 years - the number being [based on simple textual analysis] in the 200+ range.

Now, we have two problems: We must reconcile our 400/430 contradiction, and then figure out to what these numbers refer.


Ramban deals with both questions. Herein his notion:

The 400 year time clock begins from Yitzchak's birth. Had they been worthy, the Jews would have left after 400 years. It never happened. In reality, their redemption was delayed 30 years due to personal unworthiness. Ramban's point: Redemption is on our hands. Do Ramban's math and you will realize that his conception has the Jews in physical Egypt for 240 years[2].

Rashi's classic answer, [based on Seder HaDoros] provides a fascinating contrast:

First the 400:

From Yitzchok's birth until Israel left Egypt was four hundred years. ... Yitzchok was 60 years old at Yaakov's birth and when Yaakov descended to Egypt, he said, [he was] .... "one hundred and thirty years," [making a total of 190]. They were in Egypt 210 [years]---... making a total of 400 years]. - because [only] from the time that Avraham had a child could there be a fulfillment [of the prophecy]: "For your descendant will be a stranger,"

Now the 430:

.. and thirty years passed from the covenant between the pieces until the birth of Yitzchok.

 

Ramban's 400/430 dichotomy refers to potential vs. actual redemption;  

 

For Rashi, the two numbers plot the beginning of exile from different markers. Four hundred years commence with Yitzchak's birth while 430 years start with Avraham's covenant, the bris bein habesarim where Hashem informs Avraham of nationhood, exile, and ultimate redemption.

 

And for how long were the Jews actually physically present in Egypt? Rashi's approach yields the classic masoretic answer of 210 years, a famous number that remarkably has no explicit textual mention and but a few midrashic hints.

 

Pop Quiz: For Rashi, how long was the Egyptian exile a. 210 years b. 400 years or c. 430 years? The answer: d. all of the above[3].


We must probe why it all matters. Instinctively, we understand the 210 number - for it signifies physical exile, but why must the Torah present the 400/430 distinction. If the endpoint is the same, why start Exile's clock at two different points?

Perhaps it hinges on determining the why of exile. Hashem took us out of Mitzrayim, but why did He put us there in the first place - a fascinating issue probed by the Gemara[4]:

R. Avahu said in R. Eleazar's name: Why was our Father Abraham punished and his children doomed to Egyptian servitude for two hundred and ten years? 1. Because he pressed scholars into his service, as it is written, He armed his dedicated servants  born in his own house. 2. Shmuel  said: Because he went too far in testing the attributes [i.e., the promises] of the Lord, as it is written, [And he said, Lord God,] whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?  3. R. Yochanan said: Because he prevented men from entering beneath the wings of the Shechina, as it is written, [And the king of Sodom said it to Abraham,] Give me the persons, and take the goods to yourself.

Here, we conceive of exile here as punishment[5]. One might ask: If Avraham is punished why should the children suffer? Maharal points out it is not punishment per se that is the point; rather the goal is tikkun (rehabilitation). On some level what is going on is that a micro-flaw in the Jewish Spiritual DNA requires [major] gene therapy to avoid perpetual transmission to later generations. We still need to understand out how Mitzrayim is successful therapy, but the key notion here is exile as punishment and tikkun.[6]

There is however another conception of exile. First, consider this midrash connected with the Creation :

1. The World was chaos - this is an allusion to the Babylonian Exile And void this refers to the Medean exile with darkness - this is an allusion to the Greek Exile; on the great Chasm - this refers to the Roman Exile

One senses here that Exile is part of the original Divine plan. Some even claim that Hashem always intended for Adam and Chava to leave the Garden [why did He create a whole world out there?] - even as Hashem did not intend Adam/Chava to sin. It seems then, that Exile [from Gan Eden] is not a punishment, it is a reality. But why?

Consider this pasuk [Devarim, 4:20]

But you, Ad-noy took [for Himself] when He took you out of the iron crucible, from Egypt, to be for Him a people-territory like this day. Rashi - This is a vessel in which gold is refined.

And this midrash

R. Acha said in the name of R. Yonatan: What is meant by the term "a nation from within a nation"? Like someone who forcibly extricates the fetus from the womb .. so too God removed Bnei Yisrael from Egypt; we learn from this pain for the released. And ... pain for the one who releases as it says "and he took you out of the iron crucible" like the one who handles the flame from the crucible without tongs or rags, so too was it with God

Exile as a crucible bespeaks purity and refinement; a painful yet necessary way to extricate deeply wedged impurities. Painful for the one being refined, [and remarkably, painful for the Refiner] - it the only way to create gold. How is this accomplished? It's ahuge topic - but this pithy statement will suffice: For the survivor, Exile compels humility, simplicity, dependency upon God and forces one to cherish his survival and essential identity.   

Two conceptions thus emerge: Egyptian Exile as punishment and as crucible - it is a clear tension in the sources.


Here we come to our dichotomy. At the covenant, Avraham is told of an exile. It smacks of punishment-tikkun[7]. That is the 430 number. The process is unfurled immediately. But then Avraham is told of an exile that begins when Yitzchak will be born. Stop! Did Yitzchak do anything wrong [other than the accident of birth] - Why should he be subject to exile? Only one possible notion can apply - Yitzchak, the first born Jew teaches us that inherent in our journey to greatness is the crucible of galus[8]

The one who struggles with personal challenges (translation: all of us) might wonder how to define a particular experience - is it a punishment or a test? It is a real life grapple, for the galus mitzrayim tension is alive in all of us!  

A pragmatic thought: Perhaps the blurring of the lines between punishment and test  is Hashem's way of teaching us:
 

My children: You will not always understand Me. Just respond to the challenge and Be great. Yours is not to reason why - yours is to transcend and fly.
 Good Shabbos
Asher Brander
 

[1] [Some background: Levi gave birth to Kehos who lived 133 years (Shemos, 6, 18) who gave birth to Amram who lived 137 years (ibid. 6, 20) who gave birth to Moshe who 80 when he redeemed Bnei Yisrael.]

[2] A second Ramban approach starts the clock a bit earlier -from the famed covenant between the parts (Bris Bein Habetarim). For Ramban, Avraham was approximately eighty at the time (as it follows chapter 12, where Avraham is 75 when he receives the command of lech-lecha) Again, it could have been a four hundred year span - but due to our lack of personal piety, we stay in longer. According to this approach, the Jews are in Egypt for a total of 220 years.

 

[3] In actuality, there are 3 more sub-stages within the servitude. Stage 1: Post-Yaakov's death [193 years] cf. Rashi Vayechi [Bereishi], Post Levi's death [~133 years] and the period known as the intense slavery - the koshi hashibud. [86 years]. Something to think about.

[4] Nedarim 32a

[5] Even as each particular Talmudic answer requires great analysis

[6] Several other sources indicate that galut mitzrayim starts as punishment cf. Ramban, Bereishis, 12:10 , Abarbanel who connects it to the sale of Yosef etc. as is indicated in Shabbos 10b

[7] A function of Avraham's actions

[8] Ironically, at the bris bein habesarim, Avraham is given the 400 number; it is almost as if Hashem is comforting Avraham and telling him: It's not your fault - this was always part of the plan .


 
   
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