Are we permitted to take actions to bring the geula closer? Why is the Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones read on Pesach? Why were the Jews so fearful of following Moshe Rabbenu out of Egypt, and why did they refuse to believe that the time for their redemption had come? What finally caused them to believe him? What happened in the first exodus, undertaken by Efraim’s descendants? Did they have any hope? What was their mistake? When were they eventually saved, and what lesson must we learn from their story? What is exile – a evil, to end at all costs, or a beneficial process which must not end prematurely?
The coming parshiyos describe the Egyptian exile and subsequent redemption, events that span over 210 years. What is exile? Why is it necessary, and how can it be ended?
Egypt was a country-size prison for its enslaved nation of Bnei Yisroel, but at one point, the descendants of Efraim broke away and escaped. They arrived in the Holy Land, but were killed by the Philistines. What exactly happened to them? Why did they meet such a fate? This story carries a spiritual message, on which we will focus this week, as well as a practical message which will be discussed in this space next week, be’ezras Hashem.
Repercussions of a Failed Attempt
When Moshe Rabbenu was charged with the mission to go to Egypt and set the Jewish People free, he told Hashem: “Behold they will not believe me, and they will not heed my voice, but they will say, ‘The Lord has not appeared to you’” (Shemos 4:1). To this end, Hashem gave Moshe a series of signs to inspire their faith. Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer (48) writes that when Moshe appeared, the nation was afraid to believe him because they were still traumatized by the Bnei Efraim’s disastrous failed escape. The elders consulted with the eldest of them all – Serach bas Asher — who recognized that Moshe had said the code words her father had disclosed to her, words that include a double peh, which were indicative of the true redeemer. At this point: “And the people believed, and they heard that the Lord had remembered the children of Yisroel and that He saw their affliction, and they kneeled and prostrated…” (Shemos 4:31).
Why didn’t they believe Moshe? The Midrash (Shir Hashirim Raba, 20) writes: “When he came and said to Yisroel: ‘During this month you will be redeemed.’ They said to him: ‘Moshe our master, how will we be redeemed? Did the Holy One blessed be He not say to Avraham: “They will enslave them and afflict them for four hundred years” (Bereshis 15:13)? We have been enslaved for only two hundred and ten years.’ He said to them: ‘Since He desires your redemption, He does not look at your calculations, but rather: “He leaps over the mountains.” He leaps over calculations and over terminuses and intercalations, and during this month you will be redeemed, as it is stated: “This month is for you the beginning of the months” (Shemos 12:2).”
While initially, the exile was supposed to end later, Hashem calculated it in a way that would allow it to end earlier. The Pnei Yehoshua (Ksubos 111a) explains that it was due to the extreme suffering that was inflicted on Bnei Yisrael. Had the Egyptians not tormented them, the exile would have ended at a later date.
But the trauma from the Bnei Efraim’s fate did not heal when they left Egypt. It continued to haunt them in their journeys.
The Mechilta (D’Rabbi Yishmael, Beshalach) and other sources explain that Hashem didn’t lead them to Eretz Yisroel through the Philistine lands because the bones of the 180,000 descendants of Shutelach, son of Efraim, were still scattered over those parts (another opinion counts them at 200,000). Another reason is because the war with Philistines might remind them of the traumatic death of that premature attempt, to the extent that they might turn around and go back to Egypt.
The Toras Chaim (Chulin 92a) explains that the memory remained engraved in their national memory, even many years later. After The Spies returned and told them about their findings in the Holy Land, the Bnei Yisroel were afraid of a prospective war with the Canaanites, and said: “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt!” (Bamidbar 14:4). Later on, when the Canaanites initiated a war, this claim arose again, and some actually returned to Egypt.
The Bnei Efraim’s failure also influenced forces outside of the Jewish nation. The Torah Chaim writes, that at the Splitting of the Sea, the Egyptian ministering angel prosecuted them saying their 400 years had still not passed, and they had to return. The Chida (Chomas Anach, Shemos 4) explains this was how Pharaoh’s advisors convinced him to chase Bnei Yisroel after they had left. Just as the Bnei Ephraim managed to get out but did not survive, they claimed, so too the rest of the nation — they are intended to be enslaved by another nation.
What exactly happened to Bnei Efraim? In Divrei Hayomim we find more details: “And the sons of Efraim: Shuthelah, and Bered … and the men of Gat, the natives of the land, slew them because they came down to take their cattle. And Efraim their father mourned for them many days, and his brothers came to console him” (I, 7:20-22). The Gemara (Sanhedrin 92b) explains that they mistakenly thought the exile had ended, and left prematurely. Why they took the cattle will be discussed shortly.
In Tehilim, King David warns us to learn a lesson from them and not repeat their mistake, criticizing them sharply: “And they should not be as their forefathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, who did not prepare its heart and whose spirit was not faithful to G-d. The sons of Efraim, armed archers, retreated on the day of battle. They did not keep the covenant of G-d, and they refused to follow His Torah” (Tehilim 78:8-10). Rashi there explains that they “left Egypt forcefully before the end [of the exile] and trusted in their might and in their arrows. Ultimately, they retreated and fled on the day of battle…”.
In Hoshea we find a prophecy directed to Bnei Efraim, reminding them: “Efraim, as I saw Tyre, is planted in a dwelling place, but Efraim is busy taking his children out to the slayer” (9:13). Chazal explain this refers to their premature escape from Egypt which led to Efraim’s descendants death.
Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer (48) provides additional details to this story. According to this Midrash, the children of Efraim, as descendants of Yosef the Monarch, lived peacefully for most of their years in Egypt. After 180 years, one of his descendants (some identify his name as Yagon, and others as Nun, father of Yehoshua bin Nun) informed them that Hashem appeared to him and instructed him to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt. 200,000 descendants of Efraim, strong worriers, left Egypt with their wives and children. The Egyptians chased after them and killed them. Midrash Shocher Tov point out that as descendants of Yosef they were not enslaved, but rather served in the Egyptian army as worriers, of which the pasuk writes: “I removed his shoulder from burdens; his hands were removed from the cauldron” (Tehilim 81:7).
The Midrashim (Mechilta D’Rabbi Yishmael; Mechilta D’Rashbi; and others and cited by Rashi Shemos 15: 14) give us a glimpse into the international repercussions of this saga. They explain the pasuk: “People heard, they trembled; a shudder seized the inhabitants of Philistia” (Shemos 15:14) as referring to the fear the residents of Gat had of the Bnei Yisroel’s revenge for killing the sons of Efraim.
A Matter Of Timing
Midrash Raba (Shemos 20:11) writes that Bnei Efraim left 30 years before Moshe appeared. However, according to Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer it seems they left 83 earlier. The Taz (Divrei Dovid, Shemos 6) writes it happened right after Efraim’s death. How do these dates settle the pasuk describing Efraim’s mourning for them: “And Efraim their father mourned for them many days, and his brothers came to console him” (Divrei Hayomim I, 7:22)? The answer is that he “saw” prophetically what would happen to his descendants, and mourned for them. This is also why he could not be comforted – they were actually still alive.
Why did they miscalculate the exile? The Midrash (Shemos Raba, 20:11) explains that Bnei Efraim knew Hashem told Avraham Avinu they would be enslaved for 400 years at the Covenant Between the Parts, but they mistakenly began counting the years from then. Instead, they should have begun counting it from Yitzchok’s birth, when Avraham’s descendant began living in “a land which was not their own” (since the Holy Land had not yet been given to him, Yitzchok is considered having lived in exile). Midrash Agada (Shemos 13:17) explains that Bnei Efraim knew Hashem had promised Avraham Avinu (Bereshis 15:16) “And the fourth generation will return here”, and saw themselves as that fourth generation, which permitted them to leave.
The Rambam (Igeret Teiman) adds, that when the people saw the Bnei Efraim’s fate, the pasuk writes (Shemos 2:23) “…And they cried out, and their cry ascended to G-d from the labor”. The Chizkuni explains this was after they saw the redeemer had not arrived, and heard of the Bnei Efraim’s fate, that they lost hope.
Different factions among the Bnei Yisroel counted the years of exile in various ways. Some calculated it from Yaakov’s descent to Egypt. Therefore, when Moshe arrived and informed them the exile was over, they didn’t believe him, thinking they still had another 190 years. Others thought the 400 years counted only from onset of the actual slavery, 70 years after Yaakov arrived in Egypt. When Moshe appeared, they claimed there were still another 260 years of exile left until their redemption.
The Chida (Pnei Dovid, Devarim 2:12) presents another calculation that led to the Bnei Efraim’s mistake. According to the Zohar (appears in Zohar Chadash, Vayeshev 49a) the Egyptian Exile was a punishment for selling Yosef. Therefore, it lasted for 210 years (22 years that Yosef was without his father, times ten Tribes who sold him. Each one of the Tribes who died in Egypt deducted 1 year from the exile). Since they were not part of the sale, Bnei Efraim did not include themselves in the punishment, and therefore decided they were permitted to leave.
Their fatal mistake led to a devastating massacre. Why was their punishment so severe? The Maharal (Chidushei Agados, Sanhedrin 92b) explains that when the time they had calculated passed, they gave up hope, saying: “That’s it, our bones will dry up.” They lost hope of miraculous redemption and took their fate in their own hands, relying upon their own military prowess and training as soldiers. This is why they were killed. Since they gave up on the redemption, they were unworthy of being freed, and even after their death, they should not have been resurrected. One who gives up hope does not merit seeing the final redemption. This is why the Miracle of Dry Bones was so supernatural, beyond a “simple” miraculous revival of the dead.
The Maggid revealed to the Beis Yosef (Magid Meisharim, Beshalach) that Yosef saw in Divine Inspiration that Bnei Efraim would leave prematurely. Therefore, he made them promise not to leave without taking his bones with them only when Hashem would revisit them – i.e. in the second time they would leave, not the first.
Why were the Bnei Efraim punished? One reason is, as mentioned above, for giving up hope of redemption. The Mechilta offers another explanation: it was for breaking the oath not to leave before the time was up. This explanation is alluded to in the pasuk: “The sons of Efraim, armed archers, retreated on the day of battle” (Tehilim 78:9).
The Maharsha (Sanhedrin 92b) explains that they were not worthy of death merely for miscalculating the end of the exile, but for breaking Avraham Avinu’s vow he had given to Avimelech (three generations of peace) and taking Gat’s cattle. The Yad Rama (Sanhedrin 92b) explains that Bnei Efraim knew of the promise to leave Egypt with great wealth, and thought that prophecy was reason enough to grant them permission to take the cattle in Gat.
Righteous Sons of Efraim
In Tehilim, Bnei Efraim are criticized: “They did not keep the covenant of G-d, and they refused to follow His Torah. They forgot His deeds and His wonders, which He showed them” (78:10-11). Were they really that bad? Doesn’t everyone make mistakes?
Yes, it’s true. Even righteous people can make mistakes, for which they are criticized sharply. However, they remain righteous, nonetheless.
The Midrash (Shemos Raba 20:11) proves just this point. While Bnei Efraim are criticized in Tehilim, another pasuk proves Hashem’s love for them. As the Midrash writes: “What did the Holy One blessed be He do? He took the blood of the Efraimites and, as it were, dipped His garments in them, as it is stated: “Why is Your garment red?” (Yeshayah 63:2). The Holy One blessed be He said: I will not be consoled until I take the vengeance of the Efraimites…”
And what was their end? The Gemara (Sanhedrin 92b) tells us that their bones, which were in Plishtim, rolled around and reached the valley of Dura in Babylon. There, 920 years after their murder, Yechezkeil the prophet resurrected them, and they lived again.
The Alashich explains that Bnei Efraim left Egypt early because they were so sure of the redemption, therefore, even though they made a mistake, they were eventually resurrected. The Mabit explains that although they were mistaken, since they died on their way to the Holy Land, they are considered having died on the way to perform a mitzva, and earned resurrection so many years later, meriting returning to the Holy Land together with Ezra at the beginning of the Second Temple era.
The Chasam Sofer (volume II, chapter 337) adds proof to their piety: their bones remained intact for 920 years. The pasuk writes: “Jealousy is the rot of bones” (Mishlei 14:30). The Gemara writes (Shabbos 152b) that the bones of a person who was never jealous will never rot. These sons of Efraim must have never been jealous if they merited their bones remaining for so long.
The Gemara (Megillah 31a) writes that Yechezkeil’s prophecy is read on Pesach. Rashi and Shibolei Halaket quote Rav Hai Gaon who explains that since the holiday is a time we retell the story of our redemption, we must also tell the story of the failed redemption, and how, after nearly a thousand years, they returned to life. According to the Tur (OC 490) the reason is because of a tradition we have that the final Resurrection of the Dead will happen in the month of Nissan. Therefore, we recall that Resurrection of the Dead that occurred so many years ago. This explanation appears in the Mishna Brura (490:14).
The story of Bnei Efraim teaches us that investing effort in bringing the Redemption before the right time is futile, because the attempt is destined to fail. Even righteous men who had firm belief in the coming geula; who merited dying on the way to perform a mitzva; and had not a single jealous bone in their body — required a special miracle to be resurrected.
Exile can be compared to a dangerous operation. When a patient is in the operating theatre undergoing a dangerous procedure, we might pray for his health, hope and wish for him to come out in one piece — but we would never attempt to pull him out before the operation is over. The same thing can be said of our soldiers fighting in Gaza – while we pray and do good deeds so they merit returning home in one piece, we’d never come and pull them out before they’re finished.
Exile is a long, bitter, and painful experience, but it has a purpose. Just like a medical procedure or war in Gaza – ending it before the goals are met is dangerous, and futile. We pray the goals are met sooner than later, and then we will merit the complete and final geula, may it come speedily in our times.