How many Jews came down to Egypt?

By the time of the Exodus, there were 600,000 men of military age (and, according to all estimates, a total of a few million people) in the young nation. But the number who originally went down to Egypt in the days of Joseph were only, by the Torah's attestation, "seventy souls." However, if one examines the text, Jacob's sons and their children — even including Joseph and his sons who were already in Egypt — only amount to a total of sixty-nine. The commentaries offer a number of explanations. Some say that the Torah simply rounds off the number to the nearest ten. Another explanation is that the seventieth person is Jocheved, born as Jacob's family was entering Egypt. Or, Jacob himself is counted as number seventy.

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 seventy, to fulfill his promise made earlier to Jacob (Genesis 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. G‑d 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 Psalm 91, "I am with him in his affliction." In all our anguish, in all our tzorris, He is right there with us!

It was this conviction of the invisible but tangible Divine Presence being with us in the Galut 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 G‑d during the Holocaust?" I could never even attempt to debate this question with an embittered survivor who has lost his faith. And who are we to criticize those holy tormented souls? But my father, and many like him, survived with their faith intact. 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 G‑d 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 10, 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? (Saddam Hussein is not one.) 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 2,500 years later.

G‑d's promise to Jacob 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.