| Bo

The Torah is full contradictions[1]. So much so that interpreting these contradictions is one of the most fundamental principles of Biblical exegesis[2]. 365 days a year we conclude the opening portion of the Shacharit service with Rabbi Yishmael’s 13 principles of biblical interpretation the last of which – and one generally said out loud by the chazan - states“and two verses that contradict one another until a third passage comes and veyachria[3], determines between them[4]”.

The Torah is our guide to living and as life is full of contradictions so too must the Torah be the same. Even if one can resolve the contradictions – there is much to be learned from each of the contradictory passages[5]. And not every contradiction can or should be fully resolved; it is the tension between the various approaches that leads to new insights.

As a book of morality, the Torah should not be read for historic information. It is for this reason that the Torah is silent regarding the identity of the Pharaoh of the Exodus, a topic that may be of great interest to many but is of no interest to the Torah. The story of the Exodus may be the historic story of the Jewish people, but it is also the story of freedom for all peoples for all times. It matters little who Pharaoh was or when exactly the Exodus occurs. There have been too many Pharaohs throughout history. What matters is the lessons it teaches about tyranny, oppression, political leadership, freedom, free choice G-d’s role in history, and much more. The Torah’s interest is not history but that which is historically significant for all times. 

The Jewish people were formed in Egypt. How long we actually dwelled there is of little significance and hence we should not be surprised that the Torah itself presents three contradictory accounts as to the length of our sojourn in Egypt. “The length of time that the Israelites lived in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years” (Shemot 12:40). It is relatively easy to resolve that verse with G-d’s foretelling Abraham that, “know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years” (Breisheet 15:13). More difficult is resolving either of those verses with the fact that Kehat was amongst those who descended to Egypt and many years less than 400 passed from his birth to his grandson Moshe redeeming the people. Hence our Sages actually claim that our ancestors spent “only” 210 years in Egypt, a claim that differs from an explicit Torah verse. Each of these dating systems present us with a different perspective on the Exodus. While they cannot all be true historically they all offer moral truth.

Let us take a brief look at the verse in this week’s parsha which states that we were in Egypt for 430 years. Avraham was 75 years old when G-d first appeared to him asking him to leave his home for the unknown land of Canaan. At the age of 100 he fathered Yitzchak, who was 130 when he went to Egypt. Thus, from the time G-d appeared to Avraham to Yaakov’s descent to Egypt was exactly 215 years, leaving 215 years from Yaakov’s journey to Egypt to the Exodus. 

Yaakov is both the third of our patriarchs and the founding father of Bnei Yisrael. He is both an individual, Yaakov, and a symbol of the nation, Yisrael. G-d’s covenant with Avraham that his descendants would be strangers, oppressed and enslaved was fulfilled through Yaakov who was a stranger, oppressed and enslaved as Yaakov in the house of Lavan[6]. But that is only half the story. The Bnei Yisrael dwelled for in Egypt for another 215 years as “strangers, oppressed and enslaved”. It is not by chance the authors of the Haggadah compared Lavan and Pharaoh. 

The story of the Exodus is one we must relate to both on an individual and communal level. What does freedom mean to us personally and what does it mean to be a free people? For most of our history we could only dwell on the first question. Our generation is fortunate to be able to dwell on the second. It is one we must answer most carefully.

[1] When discussing contradictions of Torah people tend to think of reconciling Torah and science. Of greater import and significance are the contradictions within the Torah itself.
[2] The many contradictions in the text is one of the factors that led many scholars to conclude that the Bible is composed of various documents written at different times by different authors. As briefly discussed above, our tradition saw these contradictions as an inherent and important part of the Torah.

[3] It is important to note that Rabbi Yishmael makes no claim that the third passage will resolve the contradiction. Rather the third passage will yachria, decide, which of the two contradictory passages we will follow. And while at one time we might follow one of the passages we might follow the other at another time and place. The word yachria literally means to cut; the third passage determines which passage we use and which we cut out [for now].

[4] I think that especially today when so many – including most Biblical scholars – accept the basic premise of Biblical criticism, it is imperative that our day schools and yeshivot at the very least offer courses that discuss the issues raised by Biblical criticism in an intellectually honest way. Hiding does not work today, though it does lead many to the conclusion that the Torah is unable to deal with modern scholarship. That is a Chilul Hashem. We may not be able to resolve every issue but there is no need to. As Mrs. Soloveitchik told her son in a different context “one day daddy will resolve [the problem in the Rambam] and if he does not then perhaps you will.”

[5] One classic example is the two contradictory stories of creation presented in chapters one and two of Breisheet, contradictions that formed the basis of Rav Soloveitchik’s classic work, The Lonely Man of Faith, which depict two inherent but contradictory aspects to the essence of man.  

[6] As Rabbi David Silber of Drisha has noted there is every reason fro Yaakov to believe that the oppression he faced in the house of Lavan was the fulfilment of the covenant G-d made with Avraham and there was little reason for Yaakov to think another exile would be needed in Egypt.