Sefer Bereshis is the crucible of Jewish history because maaseh Avos simon lebonim – the deeds of the Avos are a sign for what would happen to their sons. Using this principle, the Ramban explains a strange anomaly.After enumerating and counting the whole of Yaakov’s family at the end of sefer Bereishis, the Torah then repeats the same information at the beginning of sefer Shemos. Why repeat the same information twice? There are many approaches to answering this question.Using the principle of maasei Avos, the Ramban explains that in essence the Torah is not repeating the same information at all.
The Book of Formation
According to the Ramban, the Torah predicts the course of human history in a number of different ways.
In one place (Bereishis 2:3), the Ramban says that the whole of human history is hinted in the six days of creation. Commenting on the verse, For in it Hashem rested from all His work He had made to do (la’asos), he writes that to do hints that the six days of creation were a prelude to the history Hashem had yet to do during the next six thousand years. For example, the great luminary and small luminary Hashem created on the third day represent the two botei mikdosh that existed during the third millennium.
The Seder HaDoros writes that according to the Ramban the world’s entire history is alluded to in Parshas Haazinu. A talmid of the Ramban named Avner once scoffed at this idea of the Ramban and abandoned the Torah until he challenged the Ramban to tell him where his name was hinted in the song and was shocked when the Ramban replied that his rebellious attitude was hinted in the verse, Amarti af’eihem, ashbisa me’enosh zichrom, I said I would cast them off, I would eliminate their memory from mankind (32:26). The third letters of each word spelled the name Avner.
However, the predicted history discussed most often by the Ramban is the principle of maaseh Avos simon lebonim – the deeds of a the Avos are a sign of what will happen to their descendants.
At the beginning of sefer Shemos, the Ramban uses this concept to answer the question posed at the beginning of the article – why does the Torah count the sons of Yaakov at the beginning of Shemos after already counting them at the end of Bereshis? The Ramban explains that sefer Bereshis is fundamentally different from the rest of the Torah because it is the genesis of Jewish history. Therefore, after finishing sefer Bereishis, sefer Shemos begins relating how the history hinted in Bereshis came into actuality. The first count is Jewish history in formation while the second count is Jewish history in action.
Or as the Ramban puts it:
“The Torah has completed sefer Bereshis. This is a book of formation that discusses the newly made world and the formation of every creature, and discusses the events of all the avos which are like a formation [of history] for their descendants, for all their events are descriptions of things that hint [at the future] to inform what would happen to them. After finishing the formation [of history] it begins another sefer that discusses the actuality that resulted from those hints.” (Shemos 1:1)
The Four Exiles
The Ramban discusses the principle of maasei Avos for the first time in parshas Lech Lecha where Avrohom passes through Eretz Yisroel for the first time (ibid 12:6). The Ramban is bothered by the Torah’s narration of all sorts of seemingly insignificant details of the Avos’s lives. Why does the Torah go into so much detail?
“I will tell you a rule that you should understand in all the upcoming parshiyos regarding Avrohom, Yitzchok, and Yaakov,” he explains. “This is an important concept mentioned briefly by our sages who say, ‘Whatever happened to the avos is a sign for the sons.’ This is why the verses speak lengthily of the story of the journeys, digging of wells, and other happenings, which a person might consider unnecessary and inconsequential. All come to teach of the future. For when something happens to a prophet among the three Avos, one can derive from it what was decreed to happen to his descendants.”
The medrash the Ramban mentions is probably the Tanchuma (Lech Lecha 9) which says at this point, “The Holy One gave Avrohom a sign that whatever happened to him would happen to his sons.”
How does maasei Avos work? The Ramban compares it to the physical hints prophets sometimes appended to their predictions of the future, explaining that “whenever a decree of holy people is not merely decreed but also accompanied by a symbolic action, that decree will inevitably come about.” In a similar vein, the deeds of the Avos guaranteed the course of Jewish history.
He mentions two examples where prophets’ physical actions strengthened their prophecies.
In one incident, before predicting the defeat of Aram, Elisha instructs King Yoash to shoot an arrow eastward from a window and to beat a handful of arrows on the ground. But Yoash only struck the ground three times. In reaction, Elisha tells him, You should have struck five or six times. Then you would have struck Aram till you had destroyed it. But now you shall strike Aram only three times. (II Melochim 13:15-19)
In a second incident, Yirmiyohu instructs the prophet Serayah to predict the destruction of Bavel from a written scroll and concludes by saying, When you have finished reading this book, you shall tie a stone to it and throw it into the middle of the Pross River and say, So shall Bavel sink and not rise from the evil I will bring upon her (Yirmiyohu 51:63-64).
Just as a prophet’s deeds lent inevitably to his prophecy, the Ramban says, so Hashem concretized the gamut of future Jewish history by having the Avos act it out in advance. In these verses, the Avrohom’s initial wanderings through Eretz Yisroel influenced Yehoshua’s conquering of the land centuries later. Just as Avrohom’s first stop was in Shechem, so Shechem was the first town of Eretz Yisroel conquered by his descendants after the incident of Dinah. Just as Avrohom then pitched his tent between Beis El and Ai, so Ai was the first town in Eretz Yisroel that Yehoshua conquered by battle.
The Ramban returns to the principle of maaseh Avos when Avrohom goes down to Egypt to escape a famine (12:10). This concludes with Paroh taking Sarah, releasing her, and giving Avrohom many gifts. Through this incident, the Ramban explains, Hashem hinted that Avrohom’s descendants, his sons would go down to Egypt during a famine, suffer from Egyptian oppression, and then be freed and carry away the Egyptians wealth.
Later (26:1) the Ramban says that Yitzchok’s exile to eretz Plishtim mirrored the future exile to Bavel. Unlike Avrohom’s earlier experience in Egypt, Elimelech makes no attempt to take Yitzchok’s wife and later orders him to leave his land. This, says the Ramban, hints at the golus of Bavel where the Jews were not oppressed but became important public servants. Furthermore, just as Avimelech ordered Yitzchok to leave, so too, Koresh ordered the Jews of Bavel to return to Eretz Yisroel.
As for our last and longest golus, the Ramban (Bereshis 32:4) says that it is foretold in Yaakov’s meeting with Eisav upon his return to Eretz Yisroel. Chazal (Bereishis Raba 75:3)say that Yaakov stirred up trouble by sending gifts to Eisav and compare him to he who seizes the ears of a dog (Mishlei 26:17).
“In my opinion,” writes the Ramban, “this too hints that we initiated our downfall into the hands of Edom for the kings of the second Beis Hamikdosh made a covenant with the Romans (Sefer Hachoshmanaim 1:8) and some of them went to Rome, and this was the cause of their downfall into their hand. This is mentioned in the seforim of our sages and publicized in various books.”
Later in the incident (32:9), the Ramban says that Yaakov’s tactic of dividing his family into two camps reflects the secret of our survival in exile.
“This also hints that the sons of Eisav will never decree to eradicate our name, but do evil to some of us in some of their lands. One king will decree in his land against our money or bodies, but another king will have mercy in his place and save the refugees. Similarly, the sages said in Bereshis Raba (76:3), ‘If Eisav comes upon one camp and strikes it, these are our brothers in the south, and the other camp will be a refuge, these are our brothers in the exile.’ This shows that our parshah is also hinting at future generations.”
The Three Botei Mikdash
The deeds of the Avos foretold not only tragedy but also the building of the two batei mikdosh and our future redemption. As the Ramban (26:20) explains, the wells dug by Yaakov servants hint at the three batei mikdosh built by his descendants.
“He called the first one Eishek, hinting at the first beis mikdosh of which they quarreled [hisashku] with us and made many conflicts and wars until they destroyed it. He called the second one Sitnah, a harsher name than the first, referring to the second beis hamikdosh. He called it by the name written of it in the verse, And in the kingdom of Achashverosh, at the beginning of his rule, they wrote opposition (sitnah) against the inhabitants of Yehudah and Yerushalayim (Ezra 4:6). They opposed it all its days until they destroyed it and we were exiled from it into an evil exile. He called the third Rechovot. This is the third beis hamikdosh that will be built soon in our days. This will be built without quarrels or conflict and Hashem will widen (yarchiv) our borders.”
Incidentally, although people generally speak of maaseh Avos simon lebonim, neither the Ramban nor Chazal use this exact expression. It appears for the first time in the works of the early acharonim such as the Maharsha (1555-1631) and Maharshal (1510-1573) and stuck in Jewish consciousness ever since.