Pesach celebrates a historic event – the freeing of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt 3333 years ago. The Torah recounts how Hashem intervened in history, punished the Egyptian slave-masters and took His people –out of Egypt with miracles and wonders. The term Exodus denotes the specific departure of Bnei Yisroel from Egypt. At this time, Hashem created the physical entity known as the Jewish people and paved the way for their transformation into a spiritual entity when they later received the Torah at Mount Sinai. For all of this, we celebrate Pesach, give thanks to Hashem, and contemplate the ideas of freedom, Divine intervention and Jewish nationhood.
It is the Eisodus, (entry into Egypt) perhaps more than the Exodus that requires explanation. Why were we sent into exile in the first place? When Hashem foretold to Avraham that his children would be exiled, the Jewish nation did not yet exist. Some commentaries suggest that the years in Egypt were not a punishment for any sin. Rather, they were part of an extremely difficult but necessary process of purification. The Patriarchs and Matriarchs were to be the foundation of the Jewish people, therefore it was crucial that the slightest flaws in their personalities be rectified, since even a small defect in the foundation can compromise the integrity of the entire structure. When Avraham asked Hashem to give him a sign that he would eventually inherit Israel (after Hashem had already promised that this would occur), this indicated a lack of perfect faith in Hashem. When Yoseph’s brothers exhibited hatred and jealousy towards him this was symptomatic of a lack of unity at the very core of the Jewish people, which continued in Egypt. These and other deficiencies were also present in their descendants and had to be corrected during the course of the exile in and redemption from Egypt. The miraculous redemption awakened their faith in Hashem and their experiences united them as a people.
Some commentators suggest that beyond correcting any inherent flaws, the fledgling nation had to undergo experiences that would enable them to develop the characteristics of a people capable of carrying out Hashem’s mission throughout the centuries. The hardships in Egypt were a training ground for our future; they taught us how to be sensitive to strangers because we were “strangers in Egypt;” how to be considerate of workers and the downtrodden, because we were slaves. The Torah conveys this idea very clearly in the book of Shmos: “And you shall not oppress the stranger because you know the soul of the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.”
Egypt was thus the crucible in which the Jewish people were refined so that they would be able to fulfill their role, to improve and perfect themselves and the world.
Moreover, we learned that there are parallels between the world as a whole and our experiences in Egypt. Just as we were enslaved in Egypt all human beings are, in a sense, enslaved to the physical realities of the world. We lose sight of the spiritual world – the realities of our own souls – in the harsh glare of what appear to be tangible physical desires. In that sense, slavery is still within us.
It is our task to create harmony between this physical realm and the spiritual. (using the Torah as our guide) We experience “Egypt” also in that people are continually at odds with each other in their struggle for survival. The Egyptian Exile helped us to understand that it should not be this way; that we must create harmony between one person and another.
Another metaphor understood from our Egyptian experience is that in Egypt the Jewish people lived for generations as strangers in a foreign environment: likewise the soul feels estranged in the environment of the physical world. Once we recognize this feeling and understand its source, we can begin to create a world in which the soul is not a stranger; a world in which holiness and Hashem’s presence can be perceived.