Pesah- Earning Redemption, Then and Now
The period of persecution that Beneh Yisrael endured in Egypt was foretold already in the time of Abraham Abinu. We read in the Book of Bereshit (15:13) that God told the patriarch, "You shall know that your offspring will be foreigners in a land that is not theirs, and they shall enslave and torment them for four hundred years." It is stated explicitly that this period of suffering was to last for 400 years. Yet, as we know, Beneh Yisrael did not spend 400 years in Egypt, as God brought them from slavery after 210 years of bondage. This period is alluded to in Yaakob Abinu’s instructions to his sons when he told them to go to Egypt and purchase grain: "Redu Shama" ("Go down there" – Bereshit 42:2). The numerical value of the word "Redu" is 210, alluding to the 210-year period of exile that began that year, when Yaakob and his family relocated in Egypt.
The question thus arises, why did Beneh Yisrael leave early? If God had decreed a 400-year period, why did He release the nation after just 210 years?
Several well-known answers have been suggested for this question. One is based upon the Gemara’s comment in Masechet Megila that God accompanies the Jewish people in exile. God endured the exile together with Beneh Yisrael, as it were, and His "participation" counted for almost half the designated period – 190 of the 400 years – allowing the nation to be set free after 210 years. Another famous answer is that as a result of Beneh Yisrael’s supernatural propagation in Egypt – as Hazal teach, the women conceived six children at a time – they collectively endured the equivalent of what they would have suffered in 400 years had they reproduced at a natural rate. Additionally, it has been suggested that the severity of the 210 years of persecution equaled 400 years’ worth of "moderate" enslavement.
There is, however, another reason for why Beneh Yisrael were taken from Egypt after 210 years. The root cause of the Egyptian exile was strife and contention. Yaakob’s family ended up in Egypt because of the quarrel between Yosef and his brothers, which resulted in the brothers’ selling Yosef as a slave. Yosef was then brought to Egypt, thus triggering the process that led to the Egyptian exile. This aspect of the Pesah story is, unfortunately, often neglected, but it is a crucial part of the story that we study and commemorate on Pesah night. In fact, the Ben Ish Hai (Rav Yosef Haim of Baghdad, 1833-1909) writes that the dipping of the Karpas in saltwater at the Seder commemorates the brothers’ dipping of Yosef’s special cloak in blood at the time they sold him as a slave. As we speak about the exile and the redemption, we must begin with the root cause of it all, the internecine fighting within our family. And thus even before we begin Maggid, before we start telling the story of slavery, we recall the unfortunate circumstances that led to the period of persecution.
As this was the cause of the exile, its reversal was the cause of the redemption. Once Beneh Yisrael rectified this flaw and came together in unity, the term of enslavement could come to an end. God took Beneh Yisrael from Egypt "early," before the prescribed period of 400 years, because He saw the unity, fraternal love and harmony that existed among them.
Proof of this unity can be drawn from the Torah’s brief account of Beneh Yisrael "borrowing" clothing and utensils from their Egyptian neighbors before the Exodus. Beneh Yisrael said they were leaving for a three-day excursion, but in truth, they had no intention of returning with the Egyptians’ belongings. Remarkably, not one member of Beneh Yisrael divulged this secret. Among a nation numbering some three million people, there was not one traitor, nobody who foiled the plan by disclosing this information. The people were fully devoted and loyal to one another. There was no backstabbing; nobody was out to try to ruin his fellowman. When God saw the extent of the people’s unity and sense of togetherness, He brought the redemption – 190 years before this was supposed to happen.
As mentioned, this is a crucial aspect of the Exodus story, and it must be part of what we teach our children at the Seder. The root cause of the Egyptian exile was brotherly strife, and it ended in the merit of brotherly love. Our current exile, too, was caused by baseless hatred, and it will end, please God, in the merit of our unity and harmony.
Unfortunately, we are very far from the unity we need to bring our redemption. And no one individual is going to resolve all the many conflicts and mend all the fractures that plague the Jewish nation. But the effort begins in the home, and in our immediate surroundings. Husbands and wives, parents and children, siblings, neighbors, partners, associates, employers and employees – this where we can and must make a difference. If we improve the way we treat and deal with those close to us, at home, in the office and in the community, we can succeed in spreading loving kindness and friendship throughout the Jewish people, whereupon we will once again be worthy of redemption, speedily and in our days, Amen.