430 Years and Beyond

By Rabbi Rochelle Robins

In this section of the Torah it is stated that the Children of Israel had been enslaved for 430 years at the time of the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12:40). Rabbinic commentaries noticed a chronological challenge in these numbers that they attempted to address and ascertain with definitive precision. They strove to govern a quantitative reasoning so that nothing in Torah – no number, fact, statement, idea, or law would be without findable, indisputable reasoning and understanding.

In short, the rabbis discerned that the biblically documented enslavement of the Israelites took place over a span of 210 years. Why then does the parsha state that enslavement lasted 430 years? Rashi’s commentary on Exodus 12:40 explains that the duration of time is calculated between the ‘Covenant of the Parts/Pieces,’ (this will further be explained below) between God and Abraham and the birth of Isaac. It appears to be a simple equation of prophecy.

The prophecy looks like this:

In the Covenant of the Parts (Genesis 15:7-21), that is, after God promises Abraham the great reward of offspring as uncountable as the stars (Genesis 15:5) and land inheritance (Genesis 15:7), God warns that 400 years of oppression in Egypt will precede the covenantal inheritance. The rabbis explained that the additional 30 years comes from the time that it takes for Isaac to be born after the Covenant of the Parts is established. The prophecy is inherently connected to Abraham’s offspring, which he does not possess until Isaac’s birth. Hence, God’s promise of reward, the birth of offspring, slavery, and the Exodus as described in our current Parshat Bo, is counted at 430 years, while slavery itself lasted 210 years (also according to Rashi). Covenant, enslavement, release from enslavement, and reward required a process.

The rabbis, with great ingenuity, figured out this prophetic counting so there could be no question about the numbers of years written in Torah. For some, this calculating is comforting in its substantiation of absolute consistency in toratic chronology. For others who are more skeptical, it may be less comforting in its use of apologetic figuring to authenticate God-given prophecy. In other words, rather than it being an exact calculation, it is a calculating interpretation to prohibit any idea of textual error. Perhaps there is a fine line between prophecy and apologetics in rabbinic determination. Maybe prophecy and planning exist hand in hand. Prophecy after all relies on future projections.

From an exclusively literary perspective, the idea that slavery was in fact 210 years and not 400 entreats questions about meaning and metaphor. The journey of a people towards a complete position of slavery did not happen overnight. There were structures and events that promoted and permitted it.

The Jewish people are not the canaries in the coal mine, because to say as such might indicate passive victimhood. However, anti-Jewish sentiment is a warning of danger for everyone. Somehow, Jewish experiences are a consciousness indicator for the world to be on alert. Is there sacredness in this role?

The experience of this role far exceeds 430 years of a biblical timeline. The Jewish people live with this pressure. All groups of people play special roles in the world. Serving as world consciousness indicators is a unique and stressful role in society. There is theological danger in constructs of specialness or chosen-ness. There is an intensified place for Jews in the world that we might not choose or build a covenant upon without further negotiation with God. Is it too late for this negotiation?

The intensity takes its toll on us individually and collectively. For whatever reason, we appear to have a covenantal responsibility or role as a compass – an instrument in the world that helps to assess consciousness, societal health, and danger measurement. And this brings us back to the Covenant of the Parts (or pieces), or Brit Bein HaBetarim, a term derived from an ancient ritual of establishing an agreement through sacrificing an animal and passing its parts between parties.

Parshat Bo perhaps leaves us with this complicated 430 years that includes being strangers in strange lands, Israelite enslavement, and freedom from confinement, all with the hope that this cycle will cease. Perhaps what leads to the next Exodus will show that no one or no-thing will need to be cut into parts to establish mutual certainty and trust. Instead, what will be passed among parties is consistent belonging, kindness, consciousness, and compassion. We will no longer require calculations and chronologies of future enslavements. The Jewish people will no longer need to play the role of warning the world that we are all vulnerable and in danger. Herein lies a messianic vision that we will no longer need to play a role of sounding the bells.