Shabbat Parashat Vayeira | 5768
Forty Times TwelveHarav Yosef Carmel
By focusing on the story of the forefathers, the Torah also teaches the outline of what to expect in later periods of Jewish history. This idea, which we call ma’ase avot siman labanim (the actions of the fathers are a sign for the children), is the lynchpin of our study of Sefer Bereishit, as spelled out in the midrash (Bereishit Rabba 40).
Let us look for historical cycles based on the life of our nation’s founder, Avraham. When Avraham was 70 years old, Hashem informed him that his descendants would go down to Egypt for 400 years and that they would be redeemed from there, amassing great riches. (There was apparently a dispute between Ephrayim’s and Levi’s descendants as to how to calculate this time period. See the Ramban on Bereishit 15:13 and the Rishonim on Shemot 12:40. Rashi says that is counted from the time of Yitzchak’s birth until the Exodus.)
According to this timeline, there were approximately 480 years from when Avraham recognized his Maker until Bnei Yisrael’s emergence as a free nation. The same number of years passed from the Exodus until the building of the First Temple in Jerusalem (Melachim I, 6:1). 480 is an interesting number, as it is the product of 40 and 12. Throughout Tanach, 40 years is considered a generation (Tehillim 95:10) and an era (see Shoftim 3:1; ibid. 5:31; Shmuel I, 4:18 and more). Certainly, the number 12 is significant in Jewish history, as this is the number of tribes that formed our nation.
Reviewing Jewish history, we see that this time interval is a very significant one; it carves out historical periods. 480 years after the building of the First Temple, the second one was built (the first stood for 410 years and for 70 years there was no Temple – see Arachin 12b and Yirmiyah 29:10). Another 480 years later marks the rebellion of Bar Kochva, upon the heels of whose defeat the settlement of the Second Commonwealth faded away. After an equal amount of time, we come to the end of the Talmudic period and the beginning of that of the Geonim. Another 480 years later, the Rif and Rabbeinu Gershom lived, ushering in the period of the Rishonim in Spain and Germany, respectively. This period also lasted some 480 years until the time of Rav Yosef Karo and Rav Moshe Isserles, who authored the Shulchan Aruch and its glosses, respectively; thus began the period of the Acharonim. This period, where Jewish scholarship and life was centered in and around Europe, came to an end some 480 years later with the Holocaust.
Finally, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the Jewish people were able to launch a new enterprise in an old/new location: the establishment of the State of Israel in the Land of Israel. Let us pray that we will appreciate the great responsibility our generation bears to help turn this development of atachalta d’geula (the beginning of redemption) into a full redemption.
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