Keeping Your Word
One of the keys to correctly understanding the Egypt story is that God guided events from start to finish. In case we were hoping to blame the slavery on human free will and attribute the salvation to God, the Haggadah forecloses that option, reminding us that God had promised Avraham that his descendants would wind up in Egypt for four centuries, but that God would eventually rescue them:
בָּרוּךְ שׁוֹמֵר הַבְטָחָתוֹ לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, בָּרוּךְ הוּא. שֶׁהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא חִשַּׁב אֶת־הַקֵּץ, לַעֲשׂוֹת כְּמוֹ שֶּׁאָמַר לְאַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ בִּבְרִית בֵּין הַבְּתָרִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַיֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָם, יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי־גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם, וַעֲבָדוּם וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה – Bless the One who keeps His promise to Yisrael, blessed be He; since the Holy One, blessed be He, calculated the end to uphold what He said to Avraham, our father, in the Covenant between the Parts, as it says, “And He said to Avram, ‘You should know that your descendants will be strangers in a land not their own, and they will enslave them and afflict them four hundred years…’”
But if you think about it for a minute, this is faint praise at best. We expect honesty and trustworthiness as threshold requirements from everyone we deal with, let alone the Creator!
What kind of praise is it to say that God keeps His word?
R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that the Haggadah doesn’t mean that God merely keeps His promise; the words literally mean that God protects His promise. God had promised four hundred years in Egypt, but Rashi counts only two hundred and ten. The hundred and ninety year discrepancy can be accounted for in different ways; perhaps that the Jewish People suffered egregiously, such that four hundred years of pain could be condensed to two hundred and ten; or that they had stooped to the lowest depths of depravity and required emergency intervention. The missing years are alluded to in the words for calculating the end – חִשַּׁב אֶת־הַקֵּץ – because the word קֵּץ has a numerological value of the missing hundred and ninety years. And yet, if the precise explanation for creative accounting is a little cutesy, the fact of it is deadly serious.
In the state the Jewish People left, they were identifiable by fashion, language, and name only. In every other conceivable way, they had no semblance of Jewish identity. Hypothetically, if God had not acted at that very moment, and had they remained even a little longer, their condition would have deteriorated further, and there might have been nothing left to save, or perhaps only a small remnant might have deserved to be rescued. That could plausibly have been one version of keeping to the promise – God saving whoever was left.
But God didn’t do that. God did not abandon them to their fates, and God would not let them die or fail. Instead, every single man, woman, and child walked out – even though they didn’t deserve to. Because God didn’t just keep His promise; He protected it – בָּרוּךְ שׁוֹמֵר הַבְטָחָתוֹ.
The Sfas Emes notes that our ancestors must have been pretty certain of their tradition that they would be mired in Egypt for four hundred years; so much so that they refused to believe that Moshe was there to save them, and quite rightly so, you’d think – he was two centuries early after all…! And yet, before any explanation, logic, or wordplay about substituting the qualitative intensity of slavery for a given quantity of years, the simple fact was that it was time to go. Regardless of what had been made explicitly clear by no less an authority than God Himself, the time was now. Because God protects His promise – בָּרוּךְ שׁוֹמֵר הַבְטָחָתוֹ.
On the night we remember redemptions past, fueling our hope for redemptions to come, we ought to remind ourselves that God protects His promise, whatever it takes. We have a rich and vast eschatological literature about what will happen at the end times of Mashiach; will it be easy or painful? Peaceful or tragic? Gradual or sudden? Six thousand years or tomorrow?
The Sfas Emes reassures us that whatever we convince ourselves, we actually have no idea whatsoever. Perhaps once again, the qualitative strain of exile can stand in for a required quantity of years. Yet in the final analysis, it’s entirely academic because even if our spiritual assets were entirely exhausted of ancestral credit and merit, we could always count on the Creator’s bottomless wellspring of compassion; and the highly persuasive precedent for creative accounting when it comes to these things.
Because בָּרוּךְ שׁוֹמֵר הַבְטָחָתוֹ – God protects His promise.