Exodus, Or Return Journey?
Why The Israelites Couldn't Eat Their Bread
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
We all know the famous story of the unleavened bread – the Israelites had no time to let their dough rise as they ran out of Egypt, so they took their dough and let it bake on their backs as they fled. But why do we need to hear about this minute detail? As a matter of fact, there are a number of seemingly odd phrases in the verses describing Israel's exodus, and they all seem to lead us to one particular place in the Torah: Judah's plea to Jacob to let Benjamin go down to Egypt so that they could get grain.
Join Rabbi Fohrman as he helps uncover the mystery between two seemingly separate stories, and see how we got there, and back again.
This week’s parsha tells the story of the Children of Israel’s exit from the Land of Egypt.
Why Did the Israelites Have to Eat Unleavened Bread?
The story is familiar to many of us: After the tenth plague, the Egyptians want to cast the Hebrews out of their land. The departing Israelites ask for gold and silver from the Egyptians, and the Egyptians give it to them. They leave six hundred thousand strong, not counting children.
They take their unleavened dough on their backs because they leave so quickly they didn’t have time to let their bread rise. And at the end of it all, we hear that, in total, Israel had spent four hundred and thirty years in Egypt before they finally left.
That’s the story we all know and love, and it seems pretty straightforward on its face. But this story, told in just a few verses, actually contains a remarkable, hidden pattern; a pattern that seems to link this story to an earlier one.
I’d like to show the pattern to you, and try to ponder with you what it might mean.
Connecting the Israelites, the Exodus, and Unleavened Bread
The easiest way to pick up the pattern is to start with the most unusual phrase within it: lehitmameha. The people didn't have time to let their bread rise, the verse tells us, because they left Egypt so fast, velo yachlu lehitmameha, and they didn't have time to dally around.
Now, that word, lehitmahmea, it is an unusual word, and the last time it appears was in an episode back in the Book of Genesis. Let’s revisit what happened there.
When Did the Israelites First Go to Egypt?
It was a time of terrible famine in the land of Canaan, and Jacob’s family was desperate for food. Egypt had grain, and after a first, less than successful, trip to Egypt, the brothers of Joseph were negotiating with their father over the terms by which they might return to Egypt, to buy the food they needed.
The problem revolved around Benjamin. Because, as it turned out, the high Egyptian official heard that the brothers had met back in Egypt, told the brothers that he would not sell them any grain, unless they came back to him, with their last remaining brother, Benjamin.
But when the brothers returned to Canaan and told Jacob about this, Jacob refused to let Benjamin travel back with them. Joseph had already mysteriously gone missing, and Benjamin was his last remaining child from his beloved wife Rachel. Yaakov is not letting him out of his sight.
So time goes by, and the family’s food supplies dwindle and finally, Judah says to Jacob: Look, I’ll take personal responsibility for Benjamin; if I don’t bring him back safe and sound to you, I will have sinned against you all the days of my life. Let him just go with us, because... lulei hitmahmanu, if we hadn’t been dallying around like this, arguing about Benjamin, we could have been back and forth to Egypt twice already.
And there, of course, is that word: hitmahmanu: ‘dallying around’. It just happens to be the same word that appears later, in the Book of Exodus, in Parshat Bo: lo yachlu lehitmamea, the Israelites didn’t have time to dally around, in Egypt, long enough to let their dough rise before they left.
So there’s the beginning of a connection between these two stories, one in Genesis, the other in Exodus. But I have to tell you, when I first noticed this, I didn’t think that much of it. Because, yes, this word lehitmahmea is, in fact, unusual; but look, unusual words do have a way of appearing now and then – could just be a coincidence.
But here’s the thing: This isn’t an isolated connection between the stories. Not by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, there are no less than six, different, word pairings that connect these two sections of text.
Not only that: The six phrases that connect these stories aren’t scattered randomly throughout each episode. No. They actually appear in precisely the same order in each.
And that kind of correlation doesn’t seem coincidental at all. Let me show you what I’m talking about here.
Let’s go back to Genesis. The brothers are sitting there, arguing with their father. Jacob asks them why they volunteered to that high Egyptian official the fact that they had another brother left at home. And the brothers, they retort that it wasn’t their fault they told the Egyptian about Benjamin, because: Sha’ol sha’al ha’ish lanu, the man had asked us questions, and we answered them truthfully.
Now, as it turns out, a version of that same double sha’al appears right here, in Parshat Bo. We hear that the children of Israel did what Moshe asked for, vayisha’alu mimitzrayim klei kesef, and they asked from Egypt to give them silver and gold utensils; and then, a few lines later, a second sha’al: vayashilum, the Egyptians let them have their request.
Now, going back to Genesis, what happened after that double sha’al? Yehudah had next tells his father that they should get up and go to Egypt to get food, so they can live, and גם-טפנו their children can live, as well.
The word for children there is ‘taf’. And, lo and behold, just page over to our section of text in Parshat Bo, and right after that double sha’al, we hear: There were about six hundred thousand men who left Egypt, levad mitaf, excepting ‘taf’, the children.
So there’s a second element, taf. Now here’s a third.
Exactly two words after that mention of ‘taf’ back in Genesis, Yehudah uses another unusual word. A word based on the three letter root ‘‘ayin, reish, bet’: He said to his father: Anochi E’ervanu, I will personally stand as an orev, a guarantor, for Benjamin.
Well, wouldn’t you know it, head over to Exodus, and… exactly two words after the term ‘taf’, here comes that ‘ayin reish bet’ root, once more. This time, it spells ‘erev’: Vegam erev rav alah itam, along with that six hundred thousand, a mixed multitude – erev – of people went up out of Egypt with the Israelites.
And that brings us to a fourth and fifth word-pairings. Right after this, in both stories, we get to that word ‘lehitmamea’, we were talking about before. But here’s the thing, look at the two words in each story that immediately precede lehitmahmea. First, in Genesis: כי לולא התמהמהנו, And now look at Exodus: ולא יכלו להתמהמה.
Now, it just so happens that those terms are anagrams of one another – they’re made up of the same letters – but the phrases are related not just at the level of their letters, but in their meanings, too: Conceptually, they are mirror images of one another.
Going to Egypt or Leaving Egypt?
Consider what you want to do, and what you in fact end up doing, and now think about those phrases; Ki lulei and Lo yachlu.
In Genesis when you say “had we not dallied around, we could have been back and forth from Egypt already, what you really mean is, you in fact dallied around, but you wished you didn’t.
But when you’re the Israelites leaving Egypt and lo yachlu lehitmahmea, ‘you weren’t able to dally around,’ what you mean is: you might have wanted to dally a little, so you could’ve packed some decent bread for the trip, but in fact, you couldn’t, because there wasn’t any time.
So they are mirror images, ki lulei and lo yachlu, they are connected; and lehitmahmea in each story, there’s another connection.
So there we are: a double sha’al, followed by a mention of ‘taf’, followed two words later by orev or erev, followed by ki lulei or lo yachlu, followed a word later by lehitmahmea. Any of these correspondences, on their own, might be chalked up to mere coincidence. But together, in order? It doesn’t seem like much of a coincidence at all.
It seems like the Torah is intentionally connecting these two episodes in Genesis and Exodus. But the question is: Why? Why do the two events really have anything to do with each other? What am I supposed to understand from this interconnection?
A Sixth Connection
So… I want to suggest that the meaning of all this might very well be revealed in… in a sixth and final word pair.
You see, in both stories right after lehitmahmea, there’s one more element that connects the stories. It’s a clever play on words.
Back in Genesis, Yehudah says: If we hadn’t been waiting around like this, כי־עתה שבנו זה פעמים׃, we could have been back and forth to Egypt twice already! Or literally: We could have returned twice already.
Now fast forward to Bo; can you find the hidden ‘shav’ twice? Listen to the verse carefully: ומושב בני ישראל אשר ישבו במצרים שלשים שנה וארבע מאות שנה׃, Literally: The stay that Israel stayed in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years. But the Hebrew word for ‘stay’? You guessed it: Shav. Umoshav asher yashvu… There’s that word Shav… appears pa’amayim, twice.
But What Does It Mean?
OK, so you’re watching this and you’re thinking, ok, that’s great – a very clever word play. But Fohrman said this last connection reveals great meaning behind how these two stories relate to one another. Did I miss something? I still don’t see the meaning here.
Ah, but there is great meaning here… you just have to stand back, and look at the great sweep of history.
How Many Times Did the Israelites Go to Egypt?
Listen to those words that Yehudah said, oh so confidently, way back in the Book of Genesis: If we hadn’t dallied around bickering about Benjamin so much, we could have been back and forth to Egypt twice already.
It seems like just an off-the-cuff comment. But the Torah goes out of its way to record it for us. And we, who are hearing it centuries later, we can evaluate it with the benefit of hundreds of years of hindsight.
Because ask yourself this: How long did it, in fact, take, for everyone to go back and forth to Egypt twice? When did that second return trip from Egypt that Yehudah was talking about… actually happen?
Well, do the math.
After Judah says these words, the brothers head down to Egypt, with Benjamin, to go buy grain. When they are there, the high Egyptian official finally reveals his true identity: He is in fact Joseph, their long lost brother. And Joseph sends them all back to Canaan, to go pick up their father. So that’s back and forth to Egypt, once.
Then what happens? All the families – fathers, mothers, and children – they all pack up and come down to Egypt, to live near Joseph in the Land of Goshen. Alright, so that’s the first leg of their second trip.
But now ask: When’s the return leg? When did all those families – fathers, mothers, and children – return to Canaan? When were they finally shav, twice, pa’amayim?
And the answer is…. they didn’t.
How the Israelites Became Slaves in Egypt
They just stayed in Egypt... for four hundred and thirty years. Which is the point of the text in Exodus when it inverts the shavnu zeh pa’amayim. It says, the expected return didn’t get realized as people expected, the way Yehudah expected.
Instead, ‘shavnu zeh pa’amayim’ became ‘umoshav benei yisrael asher yashvu bemitzrayim’, the stay that Israel stayed in egypt... was four hundred and thirty years. The return transformed itself into an extended stay.
When did they finally come back on on that return leg? Well, the very next verse of Exodus tells you: יצאו כל-צבאות יהוה, מארץ מצרים – on that very day, the host of God left Egypt. Finally, the children of Israel were starting that fateful second trip home.
So in the end, there is a chilling irony in Yehudah’s words, isn’t there? When he speaks, Yehudah himself is unaware of it; but we, the reader, looking at his words with the benefit of hindsight, we can be aware of it.
You see, Yehudah had thought it a simple thing to go back and forth to Egypt. Let’s stop arguing about that Benjamin thing – we could have easily made the trip twice already! But… he’s not really in a position to know how simple it would be to return twice. Because… there is so much Yehudah doesn’t know.
He doesn’t know that the high Egyptian official he is bargaining with in Egypt, that person is really his long lost brother, Joseph. He doesn’t know that Joseph will reveal himself, and that the family will want to relocate there. And he doesn’t know how ominous that act of relocation will really become: The people of Israel, they will enter Egypt as guests, but they will slowly become captives there – and the question of whether, and how fast, they can return, will be taken entirely out of their hands.
The Israelites Moved to Egypt... and Didn't Leave
Indeed, this word shav that Yehudah has been using? It has three meanings. One meaning is ‘return’, and that’s the meaning Yehudah has in mind when he confidently says: Shavnu zeh pa’amayim, we could have returned twice already.
But shav can also mean ‘to stay’, which is how the verse in Exodus uses ‘shav’, when it says: ‘umoshav benei yisrael asher yashvu… the stay that Israel stayed in Egypt, was four hundred years.
But, alarmingly enough, ‘shav’ has one more meaning: captured. And… think about what Yehudah is saying from that perspective for a moment: Ki atah shavnu zeh pa’amayim: It is as if he’s kind of saying: We could have been captured twice already!
And indeed, so they were. The Israelites come down to Egypt to live near Joseph, and all seems fine and well, but the truth is… they can’t really leave. They are dependent on Joseph for life-sustaining grain. They are in effect… captives there already. It is a nice captivity, Joseph and Pharaoh are good to them – but it is still a kind of captivity.
And then, their captivity deepens. They become slaves – and they stay that way in Egypt, for four hundred and thirty years… until one day, by the Hand of God, they would all go free, finally returning for that second and last time, to Canaan, after all those years.
When Yehudah turned to Yaakov and boldly took responsibility for Benjamin, that was in many ways Yehudah’s finest hour. He stepped up to take personal responsibility for a brother in peril, a brother from the other side of the family, a brother who was a child of Rachel. But when he tells his father that he will do this, there is also something he is not telling his father; there is something he is hiding.
He is hiding the fact that, years before this, there was a moment in which he abdicated responsibility for a brother in peril. His father suffered terribly for that moment. That brother, of course, was Joseph, who was thrown in a pit and sold off to Egypt.
No one at the time knew exactly what became of Joseph. But we the reader know: He is the wild card when Yehudah so confidently says ‘shavnu zeh pa’amayim’. He was the first Hebrew slave in Egypt… but he won’t be the last. He is the high Egyptian official who will ultimately take care of the brothers, but his presence will also inexorably draw the entire family down to Egypt, where they will stay… and ultimately become slaves.
The Deeper Significance of Unleavened Bread
Yes, they will be a shavnu zeh pa’amayim as Yehudah so prophetically said. Indeed, Shavnu zeh pa’amayim will play out in many more ways than Yehudah could possibly have imagined.
The brothers, led by Yehudah, once plotted to sell Joseph off as a slave to Egypt – and while they did, they just happened to sit down, leisurely, to eat bread. In the words of the text: Vayeshvu le’echol lechem. Interesting. There’s that word shav again.
So isn’t it rather fascinating that, centuries later, when the families of Jacob finally get ready to leave, to return back to Canaan that second and last time… they don’t have enough time to sit down and eat bread leisurely? After four hundred years, the memory of the sale of Joseph, the story that catalyzed Egyptian slavery, still lingers in the air.
Indeed, at Yehudah’s finest hour – when he takes responsibility for Benjamin – there is yet one brother he has not yet taken responsibility for. And until he and the rest of his brothers can figure out how to deal with that, a return from Egypt will be a long time in coming.