The Torah portion of Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1), which opens the Book of Exodus, recounts the transition of the Children of Israel from their esteemed position within Egyptian society to a state of harsh subjugation and relentless oppression. This period of suffering and forced labor represents a pivotal chapter in their history, setting the stage for their eventual journey toward freedom and nationhood.
The fact that the Children of Israel would be slaves was already foretold to Abraham years earlier at the Covenant of the Parts (Genesis 15). After promising Abraham that his children would be as numerous as the stars and would inherit the land of Israel, God appeared to him and told him that his descendants would be strangers in a strange land, enslaved and oppressed. Eventually, they would be redeemed and returned to their promised homeland.
Why was this painful detour necessary? Why should the Jewish people, earmarked for a divine destiny, begin their journey as slaves?
According to the great sage Shmuel, the slavery in Egypt was a punishment for a lack of faith displayed by Abraham. The the lack of faith was displayed after being told in his old age that he would have a child whose descendants would become as numerous as the stars in the heavens and would inherit the land of Israel. In response, Abraham questions: “How shall I know that I am to possess it?” (Genesis 15:8). Immediately afterward, God appears to Abraham and tells him that his children will be enslaved. The juxtaposition suggests that the slavery was a punishment for the lack of faith displayed in the question.
The biblical commentator Nachmanides suggests Abraham was punished for abandoning the Holy Land when he left for Egypt in order to escape famine. He should have stayed in Canaan and trusted that God would look after him there. This mistake was repeated by Jacob and his children, who also descended to Egypt to escape famine. While Abraham’s children were punished for their own sins, the precedent originated with Abraham.
Don Isaac Abarbanel, another esteemed medieval commentator, offers a different perspective on the sin that led to slavery. In his opinion, it was the act of selling their brother Joseph into slavery in Egypt that catalyzed the nation’s descent into suffering. In fact, Abarbanel sees the slavery in Egypt as a “measure for measure” punishment for what the brothers did. For example, he says that just as they sold Joseph into slavery, they were subject to slavery. And just as they threw Joseph into a pit, their baby boys were cast into the Nile. Based on this explanation, the final chapters of the book of Genesis, which describe the conflict between Joseph and his brothers, do not just describe how the Israelites arrived in Egypt but also why.
Yet another opinion as to the nature of the sin is suggested by Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, known as the Netziv. He proposes that the reason for the harsh punishment was the Israelites’ assimilation into Egyptian culture and society. This explanation is based on an interpretation by the sages to Exodus 1:7, which says that “that the land was filled with them.” The sages take this to mean that they spread out over the entire country, though Jacob had instructed them to stay exclusively in the land of Goshen, and they filled the Egyptian amphitheaters and circuses. The Israelites assimilated both culturally and physically. It was their dismissal of their Jewish heritage and their emulation of Egyptian culture that triggered their subjugation. The Netziv points out that this pattern of assimilation and subsequent persecution has recurred many times throughout Jewish history.
Whether it was through an inherited weakness of faith, jealousy and betrayal, or rapid assimilation, the slavery in Egypt was the result of some form of transgression. Regardless of the specific sin, Egypt served as an ‘iron crucible’ (Deuteronomy 4:20) which would purify the Jewish people and purge them of the base metals of faithlessness, jealousy, and assimilation. And it would prove that they had no other land they could call home aside from the land of Israel. The crucible of Egypt wasn’t simply punitive, it was transformative.
Yet the experience of slavery was more than just a means of purification. It was also a critical stage in the development of the Jewish people. After seeing God’s hand so clearly, the people would not be able to doubt His existence. He brought about the people’s salvation in such an extraordinary manner that His presence and power were undeniably revealed both to the Jewish people (Shemot 6:7) as well as to the Egyptians (Shemot 7:5). Hashem’s salvation proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is a God, and that He is intimately involved in our lives. And, it ingrained in our hearts that all success and salvation come directly from Him. In contrast to Avraham’s momentary lack of faith, the collective experience of oppression and redemption by God was meant to serve as a bedrock of Jewish faith for all generations.
But there was yet another purpose to the suffering and enslavement besides purification and a means of setting the stage for God’s extraordinary redemption. Rabbi Zvi Shimon suggests that the experience of servitude and bondage was instrumental in shaping the relationship between God and the Jewish people that would be actualized after their freedom was granted. By freeing them from their Egyptian masters, God effectively acquired them as His own, transforming the Jewish people from slaves of Egypt into ‘servants’ of God. This idea is echoed in Leviticus 25:55, which states: “For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants: they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt, I am God your Lord.”
What does it mean to be a servant of God? Similar to how a slave’s life is entirely devoted to completing tasks set by their master, the lives of God’s chosen people are fully committed to fulfilling God’s will. However, there’s a stark difference between these two types of servitude. Egyptian slavery was defined by rigorous physical labor, harsh treatment, and humiliation. In contrast, serving God entails spiritual development and refinement. This divine servitude fosters inner growth and moral elevation, unlike the physical and emotional burdens of Egyptian slavery.
Despite the immense suffering that accompanied the slavery in Egypt, it was necessary for the founding of the nation of Israel, God’s chosen nation. Not only did it refine the nation, purifying the Jewish people of negative traits that would have otherwise been part of their national DNA, also proved God’s existence beyond a shadow of a doubt to the Jewish people and the entire world. And, it ensured that the Jewish people would emerge as God’s servants, a relationship that was initiated through God’s rescue of the people from Egyptian servitude and solidified on Har Sinai.
It was this bond with God that gave the Jewish people entitlement to the land of Israel, the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the land that their children almost abandoned when they tried to assimilate in Egypt.
The Exodus from Egypt marked the commencement of the chosen nation’s journey towards the Promised Land. Thousands of years later, we are still on this journey. Just as our forefathers were refined through the crucible of Egypt, so we are continually refined and transformed through the challenges we face along the way. May we learn from our forefathers and continually strive for unity, faith and a commitment to God. And may we merit a complete and peaceful return to the land of Israel.