The Eisodus and the Exodus – Shemot 5776

We begin reading the book of Exodus this week, which has as its central theme the events surrounding the redemption of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt.  G-d intervened in history, punished the Egyptian slave-masters and took His people Israel out of Egypt with miracles and wonders. With the Exodus, G-d created the physical entity known as the Jewish people and laid the way for their transformation into a spiritual entity when they received the Torah at Mount Sinai.  For all of this, we celebrate, give thanks to G-d, and contemplate the ideas of freedom, Divine intervention and Jewish nationhood on the festival of Passover.  This is all understandable.  However, it is the Eisodus, (the descent of the Jews to Egypt) perhaps more than the Exodus that requires explanation. Why were the Jews sent into exile in the first place?  What sin did they do that prompted G-d to punish them?  When G-d foretold to Abraham that his children would be exiled, the Jewish nation did not yet exist. There were no Jews around who could have committed a sin, let alone deserve to be punished.  Some commentaries suggest that there was no sin, but since the Patriarchs and Matriarchs were to be the foundation of the Jewish people, it was crucial that the slightest flaws in their personalities be rectified.  When Abraham asked G-d to give him a sign that he would eventually inherit Israel (after G-d had already promised that this would occur), this indicated a lack of perfect faith in G-d.  When Joseph’s brothers exhibited hatred and jealousy towards him this was symptomatic of a lack of unity at the very base of the Jewish people. These and other deficiencies were corrected during the exile in Egypt.

Other commentators suggest, that the reason for the exile was less to remedy the past, it was a training ground for our future. Our experiences in Egypt 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 in Egypt.

And you shall not oppress the stranger because you know the soul of the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.

The Jewish people understand the vital importance of unity because the Egyptian slavery tore apart families and friends. It created an environment in which each person was forced to compete with others for their very survival. Egypt was thus the crucible  in which the Jewish people were refined so that would be able to fulfill their role, to improve and perfect themselves and the world.

The exile also enabled us to understand the fundamental 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.

It is our task, through the Torah, to create harmony between this physical realm and the spiritual.  We experience Egypt also in that people are continually at odds with each other in their struggle for survival.  The exile helped us to understand that it should not be this way; that we must create harmony between one person and another.  In Egypt, the Jewish people lived for generations as strangers in a foreign environment, just as 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 G-d’s presence can be perceived.

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