As the story of the sojourn and enslavement of the Jewish people in Egypt comes to its final climax in this week's Torah reading, there are many questions that are left unanswered. What was the actual length of time that this Egyptian story encompassed? There seems to be contradictory dates that appear in the Torah. And why does it appear from Talmud and Midrash that the vast majority of the Jews who were in Egypt never left with Moshe to travel into the desert of Sinai and from there to the promised land of Israel?
What could have been the reason for that? And why does Pharaoh now finally succumb, after having in his mind and actions successfully withstood the previous nine plagues which were so devastating to him and Egyptian society. These questions are not addressed directly in the Torah itself though they are discussed in the commentaries that, over the ages, have been written to explain and elucidate the written word of the Torah.
After reviewing all of the ideas advanced to deal with the above questions – and other problematic biblical questions – all that can be said is that the ways of Heaven are truly mysterious and are meant to be so. Moshe is justifiably wary of gazing at the presence of God and when he finally demands to understand the policies of Heaven, he will be rebuffed and told that this understanding is beyond human comprehension and rational thinking.
The entire story of the Jewish people descending into Egyptian slavery and then being extricated is essentially supernatural in detail. Nevertheless, it is the basic and most vital narrative in Jewish history throughout the millennia of Jewish existence. It is the paradigm for the irrational and mysterious story of Jewish survival itself.
Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves in the United States of America by presidential proclamation, responding to the political pressures and national interests that beset him. Even though the hand of God, so to speak, guides all events in the world, the decision to free the slaves of the South was a completely understandable, rational and even predictable one. The main question raised by historians regarding Lincoln's action, is why was it not done sooner?
The question regarding the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt, and their redemption from slavery was how these things had occurred in the first place and how were they so miraculously corrected later. The great lesson here is that the fate and future of the Jewish people cannot be known on a purely rational basis.
Man proposes and God disposes. Yaakov and his family willingly, even enthusiastically, went to reside in Egypt. Just when it seems that the Jewish people has despaired of redemption and is attempting to integrate itself completely into Egyptian society, the redemption begins, led by an unlikely redeemer.
Questions will always abound about the Jewish redemption from Egypt. The answers to those questions will be creative and flights of genius. But the basic issue will remain as being the inscrutability of God's behavior, so to speak, in redeeming the Jews and making them a unique and special people.
Rabbi Berel Wein