However, we know from details provided in the book of Exodus that the actual duration of the Egyptian exile was only two hundred and ten years. So how do we understand the number given in this week's reading?
Our sages explain that the length of the Egyptian exile was not calculated from the beginning of the servitude, but from the date of Isaac’s birth, because he was considered Abraham’s 'seed'. And since the Land of Israel was not under his control, all the years he lived there he was considered a stranger living in “a land that is not theirs.”
Therefore, the verse’s reference to “four hundred years” does not refer to the words “they will enslave them and oppress them”, but to the “land that is not theirs.” The verse should be understood as follows: “You shall surely know that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them” altogether “for four hundred years.” Nevertheless, they would not suffer subjugation for the entire four hundred years.
It is obvious to all that this is not the plain meaning of the decree. It was G-d’s kindness that changed the decree into one that was more bearable, so the Jewish people wouldn’t have to undergo four hundred years of bondage.
As Rashi explains the verse in Song of Songs “The voice of my beloved, behold it is skipping over the mountains and leaping over the hills.” “The voice of my beloved”: I was desperate for the redemption, which was supposed to come at the end of the four hundred years as stated during the Covenant between the Parts … I thought I would be chained for many more days but then He announced that He was standing and peering through the windows of heaven at what was happening to me, as is written (Exodus 3) “I have seen the suffering of My people” etc.
“For behold the fall has passed” — these are the 400 years [part of] which I skipped by counting them from the birth of Isaac.”
What merit did the Jews have to shorten their period of bondage? Says the Midrash, Abraham came and said to G-d: “I suffered infertility for a hundred years, Sarah suffered from infertility ninety years, please consider the pain we suffered those hundred and ninety years as if they had occurred to the Jewish people so they will only have to wait another two hundred and ten years.
This is astonishing, and is surely among G-d’s great mercies and the wonders of His divine supervision. He took the private suffering of individuals, and decided to count it towards the suffering of a whole nation. This is even more surprising when one takes into consideration that our rabbis teach that the infertility of our patriarchs was intended to purify them and refine their seed from the dross of the people from whom they had descended. Since our patriarchs and matriarchs couldn’t naturally give birth, the children born to them were like a new creation created by God whose seed could only be attributed to their parents without receiving any hereditary dross from the families of their grandparents Laban and Bethuel.
Even though their infertility problems were necessary for other reasons, G-d agreed that Abraham and Sarah’s joint one hundred and ninety years of fertility would lessen and mitigate the Jewish people’s ordeal.
The sages in the tractate of Rosh Hashanah say on the verse, “skipping over the mountains, leaping over the hills”: “skipping over the mountains” — in the merit of the patriarchs, “leaping over the hills” — in the merit of the matriarchs. May it be G-d’s Will that the merit of our holy patriarchs and matriarchs stand for us at all times to help us.
Wishing you a blessed and peaceful Shabbat.