Nothing is more central to Jewish identity as much as the Exodus from Egypt. Every Shabbat, Holiday—and even every day—we mention the exodus from Egypt. On Passover, we zoom in exclusively on leaving Egypt. All of this begs for the obvious question: why were we in Egypt to begin with? Furthermore, how should we view the time before the Exodus—Yetziat Mitzrayim? Were we “serving time” being punished in Egypt, or were we accomplishing something there?
While there are varying opinions in the Talmud regarding why the Jewish people ended up in Egypt, all agree that this needs explanation.
“Rabbi Avahu said in the name of Rabbi Elazar: why was Avraham Avinue punished and his sons became slaves in Egypt for two hundred and ten years? Because he made [mundane] use of Torah scholars….Shmuel says: it is because he questioned God’s ways when asking, “how can I know I will inherit the land”( Breisheet 15:8). Rabbi Yochanan says it was because he prevented some people from coming into the divine faith (when he conceded to the king of Sedom and allowed him to take back his people to Sedom”. Talmud Bavli, Nedarim 32:1 )
All these opinions agree on one thing: going down to Egypt was a punishment—not a necessity. And yet, God did not ordain this specific punishment for no reason. As Joseph says about his arrival in Egypt(Bresheet 50:20)when he meets his brothers:” Indeed, you intended evil against me, [but] God designed it for good, to bring about what is at present to keep a great populace alive.” Clearly, there must have been a good reason for the birth of the Jewish Nation to have been in Egypt. Why? Because while it may have been a punishment, it is impossible to view the very conception of the Jewish people, our coming into existence, as merely coinciding with a punishment.
This is seen most clearly when several verses later, in the Torah(Devarim 4:20) and Nevi’im(n the prayer of King Shlomo (Melachim, I chapter 8:50-51) refer to Egypt as the melting pot and creative furnace which brought the Jewish people into creation.
This sentiment is strongly echoed in the words of the great works of the Kabbalists. The Zohar states that if it were not for the exile of the Jews in Egypt, we would never be able to be “the share of God” and his people.
What might be the reason for that?
Rabbi Zev Sultanovich explains: the Jewish people are the only people in the history of humankind to be born in exile. No other nation has become a nation—as an exiled nation. Any other nation that knew exile knew of itself of a nation and then knew exile. Not the Jewish people. The children of Israel were conceived as a nation away from their own homeland. The very onset of our existence came at a time we were a minority—a persecuted minority—and this impacts who we are to this day.
This strange birth left a profound impact on the Jewish people in two key areas that are at the epicenter of who we are to this day: first, we are a people who were born into an imperfect situation, yearning for something better. No matter where Jews were, they always said:” next year in Jerusalem.” The Egyptian experience is what enabled Jews to lift their head after the crushing defeat of the Bar-Kochva rebellion and the ruthless Roman occupation and say: “next year in Jerusalem.” It is what empowered Jews when they left Spain in 1492 to go build thriving communities in Tzefat, North Africa, and Europe. Being born into imperfection and yearning for a better world allowed Jews to shake off the ashes of Auschwitz and Birkenau, Dachau and Majdanek and to establish the state of Israel, build beautiful families, and build Jewish schools even while still in the DP camps. It is what inspires Torah scholars, Jewish scientists, and farmers to look at this world and say: “there is a better way to be doing this.”
The second effect of coming into existence as a nation—in exile- is the ability to be different in the face of the greatest civilizations the world has ever seen. The children of Israel have experienced firsthand what it means to be different from the day we were born as a nation, something which has allowed us to defy uniformity under the most challenging circumstances the world has ever seen. This recognition of difference is expressed not only in our resisting assimilation but also in recognition of the vulnerable”( Shemot 23:9), and you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger since you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Being born as strangers in a strange land allowed Jews to be the champions of sensitivity and to reverse the ancient human belief that might make right, and that power is to be worshiped at all costs.
Just as there are multiple reasons for every Mitzvah, there are numerous reasons for the way Hashem runs this world. On the night of Passover, we remember the Exodus from Egypt; we also recognize how and why we ended up there. Remembering this allows us to have a better understanding of who we are as a Nation and what it is that we should be in this world. Chag Kasher Ve’Sameach!