Many nations begin with wars, infighting and challenges between themselves and those people around them. But why did Hashem decree that the Jewish people should begin our role in history as slaves? Wasn’t there a better method God could have chosen to start the Am HaNivchar, the Chosen People of world history, who one day would we receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai and fulfill the Mitzvot therein?
Our sages describe three reasons the Jewish people needed to begin our role on the world stage with a 210 year sojourn in Mitzrayim, many years of which we were slaves to Pharaoh and Egypt.
1)To strengthen the Jews’ trust in God
2)To develop a close relationship with God
3) To show the Jews the consequences of an over-zealous pursuit of materialism
The Torah in Bereishit (15:7-8) describes how Avraham was told his descendants would be slaves in Egypt:
“He said to him [Avraham]: “I am God Who brought you out of Ur Kasdim to give you this land to inherit it.” He said, “My Lord, how will I know that I will inherit it?”
The Gemara in Nedarim (32a) explains that this question of Avraham had in it a lack of emunah that would somehow remain with his descendants and required the Egyptian exile to help them remove from their souls.
“Rabbi Abahu said in the name of Rabbi Eliezer, “Why was Avraham punished by having his descendants enslaved for 210 years in Egypt?”
Shmuel answered, “Because Avraham doubted God’s [credibility in fulfilling His promise – Rashi]. This is reflected in the verse: ‘How will I know that I will inherit the Land?’”
So Egypt was as the Torah describes a Kur
HaBarzel, an iron crucible, which has the power, explains Rashi to purify gold and remove all dross that is found in it. So too the Jewish people are like gold that needed a fiery cleansing experience which would prepare them to receive the Torah. As Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, in HaKt’av V’HaKabbalah explains that God’s true purpose behind the Egyptian slavery was to purify the Jewish people [of their baser characteristics], just as gold is purified in a crucible. He wanted to remove the base metals so that only pure gold would remain. To this end, many of those Jews who were unworthy died in the plague of darkness, and only those who remained were chosen to receive the Torah.
How would being a slave help us purify? What is is about being a slave and then being redeemed by God do for our emunah and the emunah of future generations? The Sfat Emes, Shemot, Parshat Va’eira, 5634 explains
that the purpose of the Exodus from Egypt was that we should know that God brought us out from there. “For when a person forgets this and grows proud, saying, “My strength and abilities created all this success for me” (Devarim 8:17) he must be brought to a state of helplessness to show him that everything is from God” The entire exile was to show clearly that God changes the world for the sake of Israel.
Sometimes you have to go to the lowest low before you can reach and appreciate the highest high explains Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, Michtav M’Eliyahu, Vol. I, p. 158. “Every time that there is a need to give a righteous person the possibility of rising to a very high level, he is thrown into the worst environment so that he should learn that evil is futile, and thus strive to reach the highest limits”
Similarly, when Israel needed to prepare to accept the Torah, God did not send them to the Heavenly Yeshivah from where Moshe took the Torah, but the opposite: He sent them into bondage in Egypt, to be slaves to people who had sunk to the forty-ninth level of impurity, which is the most depraved and Godless level of physical existence.
This slavery brought them to a state where “they cried out to God (to return to Him)” (Shemot 2:23). This return to God, teshuva, which began in the polar extreme, of physical enslavement and frustration, was the cause of their astonishing ascent to the spiritual level of receiving the Torah, which is compared with the forty-ninth level of spiritual purity.
The third reason for the slavery explains the Tosfot Shalem, Shemot, Va’eira, p. 22 was to remove from the souls of the Jewish people, any extreme desire for money and material success. At the outset, the Jews were offered payment for every brick that they made, but because of their desire for money they did more than necessary. After this, the Egyptians forced them to continue making bricks at the same rate as when they were being paid. This experience would remain with the Jewish people for generations to come. Whenever we become hyper focused on material success and make that our raison d’etra, we remind ourselves of the futility of pursuing money for its own sake, and instead realize that only spiritual goals last into the next world.
In conclusion Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, Michtav M’Eliyahu, Vol. II, pp. 17-18 reminds us that everything that occurs to the Jewish people has an inner aspect to it. The exile in Egypt appears to a normal person as if it was a physical slavery. But a spiritually-oriented person sees that it was a slavery of the soul, and that this was the real cause for physical slavery. In short, we were slaves to the Yetzer Harah, the evil inclination.
The Torah calls Egypt Mitzrayim, from the root meitzar, which means “constriction” and “distress.” It also signifies a “boundary.” The title of Egyptian kings – Pharaoh in Hebrew – is also significant. Its root meaning is “to lay open or untie,” implying that the goal of Egyptian impurity was to break down the defenses of one’s personality and lay it wide open to the inroads of the yetzer hara.
May this Pesach allow us as individuals and as a nation to build our emunah, and free ourselves from all the parts of our personality that are keeping us in a slave mentality. In the merit of this may we bring the final redemption of Mashiach and return to our rightful homeland Israel with the third and final Beit Hamikdash. Amen.