Isaiah’s prophecy opens with a promise that when the ultimate redemption comes, Israel will be firmly planted in its own land. They will grow and they will flourish and the world will be filled with their blessings: “[In days] to come (habaim), Jacob will strike root (yashresh); Israel will sprout and blossom and the face of the world will be covered with fruit.” (Isaiah 27:6)
Key words found in this verse bring Rashi to draw an association between this verse describing the future redemption with the redemption from Egypt. Rashi makes God the speaker in this expansion of Isaiah’s message: “Do you not know what I [God] did [for you] at the beginning [of your life as a nation]? It was the coming (habaim) to Egypt that allowed Jacob to strike root so that he might blossom and grow there. The result of this sojourn will [in the end] fill the world with its fruit.” (adapted translation) This midrash is based on the association of the Hebrew word “habaim” found in this verse with the opening verses of the book of Exodus: “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came (habaim) to Egypt with Jacob… But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.” (Exodus 1:1;7) For Rashi, the seeds of redemption are to found in remembering the difficult experience of suffering as slaves in Egypt. This memory would provide Israel with the tools necessary to grow into a people which could bring blessing to the world.
Drawing on this same association, Rabbi Isaiah from Trani (13th century Italy) teaches that the redemption from Egypt serves as a window into what the future redemption described by Isaiah might look like: “Just as I compensated the earlier generations [redeeming them from Egypt], so, too, will I compensate the later generations. Those who went down to Egypt were few, seventy people, and God likened them to a well-rooted tree that sprouted and blossomed and filled the world with fruit. Israel will also blossom and fill the land.”
The Sefat Emet, Rabbi Aryeh Leib Alter (the second Gerer Rebbe) fleshes out the spiritual message of this association. For him, the Egyptian experience served as preparation for future exiles. The suffering inflicted by Egyptian bondage provided the children of Israel with the spiritual strength and fortitude necessary to overcome all of the conditions of exile. In addition, it gave them the merit necessary so that God would always be with them in all times of trouble, as is written [in the verse from Isaiah]: “[In days] to come (habaim) Jacob will strike root (yashresh); Israel will sprout and blossom and the face of the world will be covered with fruit”. (See Sefat Emet Exodus 5636 Or Etzion ed. pp. 16-17)
The Jewish tradition places great emphasis on how the experience in Egypt shaped the people of Israel for all generations. It shapes our moments of joy. It gives us the strength to cope with life’s exigencies and it makes us cognizant of our responsibility for the welfare of others in troubled times. It is what makes us what we are as a people and it serves as a constant reminder of what kind of world we are intended to create.