The Crucible – Parshat Shemot 5774
The book of Exodus begins with the slavery of the Jews in Egypt and continues with their freedom from that slavery. Passover celebrates that historic event of about 3320 years ago. The Torah recounts how God intervened in history, punished the Egyptian slave-masters and took His people – known then as the Hebrews or the Children of Israel — out of Egypt with miracles and wonders. The term Exodus denotes the specific departure of the Hebrews from Egypt. At this time, God 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 Passover, give thanks to God, 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 the Jews sent into exile in the first place? When God foretold to Abraham 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 Abraham asked God to give him a sign that he would eventually inherit Israel (after God had already promised that this would occur), this indicated a lack of perfect faith in God. When Joseph’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 God 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 God’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 Bible conveys this idea very clearly in the book of Exodus: “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.