By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
How many Jews came down to Egypt?
Though at the time of the Exodus we left with 600,000 men of military age (and, according to all estimates, a total of a few million people), the number who originally went down to Egypt in the days of Yosef were only “70 souls.” But if one goes through the Torah text, Yaakov’s sons and their children, even including Yosef and his sons who were already there, only amount to a total of 69. The commentaries offer a number of explanations. The Torah rounds off the number to the nearest ten. Or, Yocheved was born to Levi as they were entering Egypt. Or, Yaakov himself is counted as number 70.
But, for me, the most touching one of all comes from the Midrash:
“What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He Himself entered into the count and thus it totaled 70, to fulfill His promise made earlier to Yaakov (Bereishis 46:3—4), ‘Have no fear of going down to Egypt, for I shall establish you as a great nation there. I shall descend with you to Egypt and I shall also surely bring you up.’”
How inspiring! How magnificently encouraging. Hashem is with us in Egypt. Amidst the bondage, the pain and persecution, He is with us. And in all our wanderings and dispersions, He is there. As He assures us in Tehillim 91, “Imo anochi b’tzarah,” I am with him in his affliction. In all our anguish, in all our tzores, He is right there with us! It was this conviction of the invisible but tangible Divine Presence being with us in the galus and in the ghettoes that sustained our people throughout a torturous history. This was the promise that inspired us with an inexhaustible fountain of faith, courage, and strength to survive our enemies and to flourish again long after they were gone.
Many continue to ask, “Where was God during the Holocaust?” I could never even attempt to debate this question with an embittered survivor who had lost his faith. And who are we to criticize those holy tormented souls? But my father, and many like him, who survived with their faith intact, could. How did they maintain their beliefs in spite of their suffering? One answer they might offer is this: “How did I survive? Do you understand how many miracles it took to get me out of Poland? Or out of the camps? And how about escaping Lithuania, Russia, Japan, or Shanghai? How can I deny the hand of God that plucked me from danger again and again?”
Surely, the greatest miracle of our generation is that after Auschwitz, Jews still wanted to be Jewish. That our people rebounded and rebuilt their families, their communities, and their homeland. For many, the certainty that a higher power was guiding them to survival is what sustained them in their darkest moments and what gave them the confidence to regroup and regenerate.
Soon, we will observe the Fast of Tevet, commemorating the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. So who is having the last laugh? Do you know any grandchildren of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon? Today’s Iraqis are not. All that is left of his mighty empire are a few statues. All our enemies, down to the Third Reich, have come and gone. The Jews are here, alive and well, still doing their thing 3,000 years later.
God’s promise to Yaakov that “I will go down with you” has kept us going. And the conclusion of the verse assures us all of a happy conclusion: “And I shall surely also bring you up,” from Egypt and from our own exile. May it be speedily in our day.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.