This week we begin the book of Sh’mot, Exodus. This book, perhaps more than any other in the Bible, defines who we are as the Jewish people.
Three seminal events of ancient Israelite history occur in this book: the Exodus from Egyptian slavery, the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, and the construction of the desert Tabernacle — the Mishkan. Here, at the beginning of the book, we are confronted with the Egyptians enslaving our ancestors and setting the scene for the redemption that is several chapters away.
We spend so much time and energy studying the Exodus from Egypt that we tend to gloss over the question that my teacher, Professor Ismar Schorsch, chancellor emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, has asked. In a d’var Torah he wrote in 2002, Professor Schorsch questions why the Israelites had to go down to Egypt in the first place. We know, as far back in the Torah as Genesis 15 (verses 13-16), that the Israelites will be ‘strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years.” We also know that this oppression will end, and that the Israelites will make their way back to the land of Canaan (later called the Land of Israel).
Jacob is reassured of this promise later in the Torah (Gen. 46:3-4) and throughout the Joseph story we are made aware that the permanent home for Jacob’s family is not in Egypt, but in Israel.
So why bother going down to Egypt in the first place?
One answer is given by the Torah itself. Genesis 15 describes how the Land of Israel already has people in it (the Amorites) and how that people has not yet made themselves unworthy of living in the land. They will do so eventually, but they have not yet. In other words, going down to Egypt is simply a matter of geography and demography — the Land of Israel is the correct destination, but the timing is not yet ready for the people of Israel to be in the Land of Israel.
The rabbis give a second answer in the classical midrash Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael. The generations spent in slavery in Egypty are not simply the result of bad timing when it came to conquering the Land of Israel. Instead, the years of Egyptian servitude are understood to be a way for God to build up His reputation among the Israelites and to provide Israel with a reason for obeying God. In other words, why obey God and leave Egypt? Because look at the horrible condition we’re in during our time in Egypt and understand how much better our lives will be when God frees us. Thank you, God, for bringing us out of this terrible place! The horrible nature of Egyptian slavery was needed to push the Israelites to an emotional state where they would listen to God.
A third answer — much more satisfying for me than the previous two — is provided by the Torah and understood through the prism of Professor Schorsch’s commentary. Why did the Israelites have to spend generations in Egyptian slavery when any careful reader of the book of B’reishit (Genesis) knows that the years in Egypt would be temporary and eventually the Israelites would make their way back to the Land of Israel? Because of what we read at the beginning of Parashat Lech Lecha. Genesis 12:2 tells us, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.” If Israel is to be a blessing for other nations, if Israel is to be a light to the world, showing what is right and good and moral (see the example of Abraham in Genesis 18), then they must have exposure to darkness and to what is morally bankrupt in the world. T
To endure as Egyptian slaves for generations and then have the chance to be free — that is the ultimate test of Israelite morality and ethical teachings (as contained in the Torah).
Having experienced the darkness of slavery, having survived being nothing more than property owned by another human being, how would the Israelites react to being free and to having sovereignty or power over other people? In order to see the light, you must first experience the dark. That is a rationale I can get behind, that is an understanding of Egyptian slavery that not only gives meaning to our past, but that also illuminates our present and future.
We exist as a Jewish people not only in the moment in which we live, but also as a representation of all the generations that came before us. How will we represent ourselves? What have we learned from our past and how will we enrich our history for generations yet to be born? These are the questions presented to us by the beginning of the book of Exodus. I hope we are worthy to answer them.