In my many opportunities to study the Torah with people, either in a group class or individually, I often remind people that as we read and study the verses we must do two things. The second is to “paint the picture.” By that I mean to stop for a moment and set the scene: the color, the tenor, the sounds, the emotions and the volume of the moment and the participants in that moment. The first, however, is to “do the math.”
There is a basic rule when reading and studying the Torah that the rabbis put into the following words: “Ein mukdam u’meuchar batorah” — meaning that unless the Torah clearly indicates otherwise, the narrative is not assumed to be chronological. There are many, many examples of this rule, which are evident if we just take the information given to us in the verses and we do the math.
One such clear example is Yitzchak’s age when Yaakov was born. The Torah in the beginning of Parshat Toldot tells us that Yitzchak was 60 years old when Yaakov and Eisav were born. Yaakov and Eisav have their issue, Yaakov runs away, and, in the next two Torah portions, Yaakov comes back with his family, Yitzchak dies, Yaakov and Eisav bury him and Eisav moves on to his life. In the following parsha, Yaakov begins to deal with Yosef, the brothers and being pulled down to Egypt. A nice, neat narrative — until you do the math.
Yaakov was born when Yitzchak was 60 years old. When Yaakov went down to Egypt and met Paroh, Yaakov tells Paroh that he is 130 years old (47:9). Yitzchak would be 190 years old if he were alive, but Yitzchak died at 180 years old (35:27), only 10 years earlier. At that moment there were five more famine years to come (45:11), which means that Yosef has already been Viceroy for nine years and had been a slave for 13 years prior to that (he was sold at 17 (37:1) and became Viceroy at 30 (41:46).
So, if you do the math, Yitzchak was alive for the sale of Yosef and only passed away one year before Yosef rose to power — even though the Torah’s narrative finishes the story of Yitzchak’s life before going on to Yosef and his brothers and the events that brought us down to Egypt. How does that change the way we paint to picture of the second half of the book of B’reishit? That is something upon which we will have to dwell as we read those Torah portions over the coming weeks. But we would not even think about it if we did not do the math.
Rabbi Wasserman is rabbi of Shaare Torah Congregation and the director of the Gesher HaChaim Jewish Burial Society. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.