Parshat Bo: Arguing Against Redemption, Then and Now

History, and the Jews' response to it, repeats itself.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

The Children of Israel’s habitation of Egypt, which they dwelt in Egypt, was four hundred and thirty years. And it happened at the end of four hundred and thirty years, on that very day, all the Legions of Hashem went out from the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:40-41).

The most obvious problem with this is that the Children of Israel were definitely not in Egypt for 430 years!

G-d had promised Abraham: “Know for a surety that your seed will be strangers in a land not theirs, and they will serve them, and they will oppress them for four hundred years” (Genesis 15:13). These “four hundred years” began with the birth of Isaac: though Isaac was born and lived his entire life in Canaan, he was already “a stranger in a land not his”, because though the Land had already been promised to Abraham’s descendents, they had not yet actually taken possession of it. As proof of this, when Abraham (who described himself as “an alien and a sojourner” – Genesis 23:4) wanted a plot of land to bury his wife Sarah, he had to buy it from the Hittite (Genesis 23:9-20).

The Targum Yonatan renders Exodus 12:40: “The days that the Children of Israel dwelt in Egypt were thirty Shmitta-year cycles, which equal 210 years; and a total of 430 years passed from when Hashem had spoken to Abraham, from the time He had spoken to him on the 15th of Nisan in [the Covenant] between the Parts, until the day that they left Egypt”.

The result is that even though the Jews had known ever since that they were doomed to 400 years of exile and slavery, in the event the oppression lasted far less than four centuries. We were in Canaan for the first 190 years of that 400-year period, and in Egypt for a total of 210 years; the slavery only began after the last of Jacob’s sons died – that is, when Levi died in the year 2331, ninety-three years after the descent to Egypt (following Seder Olam Zuta, Chapter 4 and Midrash Rabbeinu Bechayye, Exodus 1:6); and the hideously harsh oppression began when Miriam was born, eighty-six years before the redemption (Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah 2:1 [11] and Yalkut Shimoni, Song of Songs 986).

And so, when Moshe announced to the Hebrews that the redemption was at hand, “they said to him: Moshe Rabbeinu [our Master], how can we be redeemed? Did G-d not tell Abraham that ‘they will serve them, and they will oppress them for four hundred years’ (Genesis 15:13)?! And we have only been here for two hundred and ten years!” (Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah 2:1 [8]).

Moshe’s response was simple: “Since He delights in your redemption, He does not look at your calculations, but ‘skips over the mountains’ (Song of Songs 2:8), and the ‘mountains’ here are the calculations of when the end time will come; so you will be redeemed in this month” (Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah ibid.).

We had been in Egypt for 210 years, and G-d had started the 400-year countdown 190 years before Jacob and his ten sons went down to Egypt.

This Midrash teaches us a simple yet crucial lesson: it is not for us to decide when G-d sends His nation’s redemption. When Moshe came to redeem Israel, it was not the secularists of his day who rejected the redemption – it was the tzaddikim, the most devout and pious of Jews, the Satmar Hassidim and the Neturei Kharta of that generation, who gave halakhic arguments for staying in Egyptian exile and rejecting the return to Zion: the time has not yet come, and it is forbidden for us to hasten the redemption ahead of its time!

But G-d punished these devout heretics and pious sinners in Egypt harshly: “Why did G-d bring the Plague of Darkness?... Because there were sinners among the Israelites who had Egyptian patrons; they had wealth and honour, and did not want to leave Egypt. G-d said: If I smite them publicly and they die, then the Egyptians will say: Just as the Plagues came upon us, they also came upon them. Therefore, He brought the three-day darkness upon the Egyptians, so that the Jews could bury their dead without their enemies seeing” (Sh’mot Rabbah 14:3).

Thus when the Torah tells us that the Children of Israel left Egypt “armed” (Exodus 13:18), the Midrash homiletically relates the word chamushim (armed) to the word chamesh (five) – that is, only one Jew in five left Egypt alive, the other four-fifths having died in the Plague of Darkness (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishma’el, Pis’cha 13; Tanhuma, Beshallach 1; Yalkut Shimoni, Bo 208 et al).

Jews living in slavery in Egypt, finding halakhic arguments for staying in exile, enjoying their crumbs of prestige, preferring the known hardships of exile to the as-yet-unseen glories of redemption…how depressingly familiar all of this sounds to us today…

This is the paradigm for every return to Israel.

A year and four months after the Exodus came the sin of the spies who incited the entire nation to reject the Land of Israel. The punishment that G-d decreed upon the nation was an extra generation of exile in the Sinai Desert: “As the number of days that you spied out the Land, forty days – a day for a year, a day for a year – you will bear your iniquities for forty years” (Numbers 14:34).

It may have seemed from this that we would be condemned to wander in the desert for an extra forty years – but no: the forty-year countdown was retroactively backdated to have begun from the day of the Exodus, not the day of the sin.

And more than this, we were in the Sinai Desert for less than forty years: the Exodus occurred on the 15th of Nisan, and Joshua led us across the River Jordan into the Land of Israel just under forty years later on the 10th of Nisan (Joshua 4:19), five days before the 40-year punishment should have finished.

It is quite easy to imagine that day, as Joshua began to lead the nation across the River Jordan, some of the tzaddikim began protesting: Joshua, Joshua, the time to enter the Land of Israel has not come yet! There are another five days still to go! We are obligated to stay here in exile! You are rebelling against G-d by trying to hasten the redemption…

Fast-forward 835 years. King Yehoyakim (Jehoiakim) has been on the throne of Judea for four years, and 800 km (500 miles) to the east Nebuchadnezzar has just ascended to the throne of Babylon. The Middle East is in turmoil, with Babylon (Iraq), Persia (Iran), Assyria (Turkey) and Egypt all flexing their military muscles, trying to impose their hegemony over the entire region.

Moab and Ammon (Jordan) and Aram (Syria) are carrying out periodic border-raids against Judea. Judea’s future is insecure at best, in the midst of all these hostile powers.

Sound familiar?

And in the midst of all this, the prophet Jeremiah is speaking “to the entire nation of Judea and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (Jeremiah 25:2), telling them of the impending Babylonian invasion: “This entire Land will be a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon for seventy years” (v. 11). And about sixteen years later, after Babylon had already conquered Judea and carted off most of the Jews into exile, Jeremiah sent a letter to the Jewish exiles in Babylon: “Thus says Hashem: When seventy years will have been completed for Babylon, I will remember you and I will fulfil for you My good word, to return you to this place” (Jeremiah 29:10).

This sounds unequivocal: the exile in Babylon is predestined to last seventy years, not a day less. Yet Koresh (Cyrus), king of Persia, who had inherited the Median Empire when Daryavesh (Darius) the Mede died, proclaimed the Jews’ right to return to the Land of Israel just 52 years after Nebuchadnezzar had exiled them.

Only in retrospect did they realise that G-d had set the 70-year countdown ticking from Nebuchadnezzar’s first invasion of Judea. (Judea was subsequently a semi-autonomous vassal-state of Babylon for three years, before rebelling and reasserting their independence. The second Babylonian invasion happened some seven years later, and the destruction of the Holy Temple and the mass exile to Babylon was ten years after that.)

The same paradigm still held: the return to Zion happened earlier than it appeared to have been prophesied, even though the 70-year prophecy would have seemed unequivocal to the Jews of the generation.

This has direct practical implications for the third and final redemption, the opening phases of which we are currently living through. Of course, as happened before, there is no shortage of pious and devout heretics who fulminate that the time has not yet come, that it is forbidden for us to hasten the redemption ahead of its time, that the Jewish nation today is not worthy of redemption.

Of course, as before, there are many – all too many – devout and pious Jews who give halakhic arguments for staying in exile and reject the return to Zion, preferring the opulence and physical comforts of Flatbush, Golders Green, and Strasbourg to the as-yet-unseen glories of redemption. Moshe heard all these spurious claims more than thirty-three centuries ago – and answered them all decisively.

The Midrash (Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah 2:1 [8], cited above) continues: “When Moshe told Israel, ‘You will be redeemed in this month’, they said to him: ‘Moshe Rabbeinu, how can we be redeemed? After all, we have no good deeds to our merit!’ He responded to them: ‘Since He delights in your redemption, He does not look at your bad deeds. At whom does He look? – At the [genuine] tzaddikim among you and at their deeds, such as Amram and his household’”.

When Moshe came to redeem us from Egyptian slavery 3,327 years ago, he taught us some of the great principles which apply eternally: that when G-d desires to redeem us, He does so in His time and for His reasons; that it is not for us to decide that the time has not yet come, or that the nation of Israel is not worthy; that in the time of redemption, there will be Jews who will bring seemingly honest arguments against returning to Zion; but that however sincere they might be in their mistaken beliefs, they will not succeed in delaying the redemption.

When will the redemption come? “Today, if you will listen to His voice” (Psalms 95:7).