In the middle of this week’s parasha is the record of the second census, 39 years after the first, as בני ישראל are about to enter ארץ ישראל. There is something odd about the list of יהודה's families:
Why start with בני יהודה ער ואונן; וימת ער ואונן בארץ כנען? They did not have any children; they had no family to enter the land. All the other tribes just start with the lists of families:
The truth is that the families that entered the land were descended from those who left the land 250 years before:
And the list of those who went into Egypt (דברים י:כב: בשבעים נפש ירדו אבתיך מצרימה) includes יהודה's dead children as well:
Why mention ער ואונן among those who went down to Egypt? Before we look at that, we have to realize that there’s a much bigger problem with ובני יהודה ער ואונן ושלה ופרץ וזרח; וימת ער ואונן בארץ כנען ויהיו בני פרץ חצרן וחמול.
ויהי בעת ההוא is right after יוסף is sold into slavery. 22 years later, they all go down to Egypt. יהודה has to marry, have three children, have them old enough to marry, then have the twins, and have them old enough to have their own children. Effectively, בני פרץ חצרן וחמול are יהודה's great-grandchildren. There just isn’t enough time, unless they all bore children at the age of 10 or so.
Ibn Ezra solves the problem by saying ויהי בעת ההוא doesn’t mean “at that time in the narrative”, but “at that point it had already happened”:
But that does not fit the פשט of the text. Chizkuni takes it literally: אין הכי נמי, they all bore children at the age of 7 or 8:
Chizkuni cites the gemara that in תנ״ך, people bore children at 8 years old:
The gemara then gives several examples from תנ״ך with midrashic interpretations that they fathered or gave birth at 8 years old. I will mention one, the story of Achitophel, David’s closest advisor who betrays him during Avshalom’s rebellion. It is a story that we are dealing with right now in the Tanach class, and it is an aggadah that I don’t know how to take seriously, so I left it out of that shiur but I will bring it up here. תהילים נה is David’s lament about the betrayal:
The gemara assumes that this prayer was answered in the affirmative, and לא יחצו ימיהם means they died before age 35 (תהילים צ:י: ימי שנותינו בהם שבעים שנה). The text does not tell us when the rebellion of Avshalom takes place, but the gemara goes through all the time spans that are mentioned, and shows that Shlomo is at least 7 years old when Achitophel dies.
So? Why does it matter that Achitophel is 26 when Shlomo is born? It’s important because Achitophel is Bat Sheva’s grandfather, or Shlomo’s great-grandfather:
Achitophel is a great-grandfather at 26! Now this is midrashic; it requires taking לא יחצו ימיהם literally. I can’t do that so I skipped this aggadah in the Tanach class. But Chizkuni does take it literally and applies it to our case:
But that is also impossible to take literally. The gemara (even literally) is not talking about when it is appropriate to get married; it is talking about when it is possible to father a child. So Rav Medan has a radical interpretation that pulls all these pieces together. It starts with another anomaly of our list. בנימן goes down to Egypt with 10 sons:
But at the second census there are only 5 families, and 2 new families from his grandchildren:
Rashi has less of a problem with the loss of some lineages; many of בני ישראל died in the wilderness:
For the extra two, he brings two explanations:
Rashi doesn’t like רַבִּי מֹשֶׁה הַדַּרְשָׁן's explanation and brings his own, but Ramban rejects that:
We know from the story of יהודה‘s children that the concept of יבום, of carrying on the spiritual legacy of someone who died childless, was an important concept to the generations that went down to Egypt. But that doesn’t explain חצרן וחמול, the sons of פרץ. פרץ and זרח, יהודה’s children with תמר, were the children of יבום for the late ער and אונן.
But there’s another side to the story. 70 descendants of יעקב went down to Egypt; 70 families formed the basis of the people of Israel who entered the land.
Each of the 70 had a unique role, an individual perspective, that added up to a unified whole. Humanity has 70 families, and כנסת ישראל has 70 families:
The “70 who go down to Egypt” is a literary concept, like the 12 tribes. They can be counted in various ways but the underlying idea remains: everyone has a unique role. So when ער and אונן die, there is a gap in the 70. פרץ and זרח, the “real” בני יבום, cannot fill that gap; they were in and of themselves part of the 70. They had their own roles to play. In the understanding of Rav Medan, the roles of ער and אונן were left open. Only 68 actually went down to Egypt. Their place would be filled by the sons of פרץ, who would be born later. There is no need to shoehorn three generations into 22 years.
בני יהודה ער ואונן; וימת ער ואונן in our parasha tells us something profound about how the Torah views כנסת ישראל. We are a microcosm of humanity as a whole, and fulfilling our destiny as we enter ארץ ישראל is the first step to fulfilling the destiny of all of creation: