Out of the Iron Furnace
Now we begin in earnest. As we start Sefer Shemot, we somehow get the feeling that everything we read in Sefer Bereishit was written to prepare us for the rest of the Torah. The drama of Bereishit's last 23 chapters laid the groundwork for Israel's sojourn in the land of Egypt. Earlier, an ominous prediction to Abraham warns that the patriarch's descendants will suffer oppression in a foreign land.
And He said to Abram, "Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years; but I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve, and in the end they shall go free with great wealth" (Genesis 15:13-14).
By the end of the book, readers begin to wonder when that slavery will actually happen. Here it comes.
The opening chapters of the book of Genesis contain several stories of the faltering of humanity and subsequent punishment by God. The sin of Adam and Eve, Cain's murder of his brother, the destruction of the world by the flood in parashat Noah, the building of the tower at Babel - all conclude with the message that there is no escape from the eye of God. No human endeavor can succeed without the consent of God; divine providence is a constant in the world that God created.
Before beginning our study of Sefer Shemot which celebrates the salvation from Egypt, a somber consideration of the events as related by the Bible must recognize that not only did God end the Egyptian slavery, but He caused it in the first place. This is congruous with the theme established in those early Genesis stories that God controls history. Nations do not rise and fall due to chance or their own initiative. By predicting the Egyptian experience five or six generations in advance, God illustrates to Abraham (and presumably to his immediate descendants whom Abraham may have told about this communication) that God's interference in Egypt will not be coincidental or spontaneous.
The story in Exodus cannot be read as God leaping to rescue the unfortunate Jews who find themselves in another fine mess. Long in advance God has spelled out what will happen and how it will end. The Torah wants its readers to learn that in the relationship between God and the Jews which starts with Abraham on a personal level, and develops into a national movement in Egypt, their fate is consistently monitored by God. Indeed, this is one of the Bible's main themes which is carried through from Egyptian slavery to the destruction of the First Temple and the return from exile in Babylonia. The belief is adopted by the Sages of the Talmud.
This is why it is so important for Abraham to know ahead of time what his descendants will experience. When the covenant of chapter 15 is being struck, the terms include recognition of God's role in the world. He can elevate the Jews or bring them down. In the book of Exodus, little emphasis is placed on the fact that the glory of God's salvation would not have been necessary if God had not set the Jews up for rescue. The text quoted above and the long Joseph narrative (Genesis chapters 37-50) do indeed confirm that God wanted the Jews to endure the hardships of Egypt. The Torah is saying that any subsequent series of events in Jewish national history must be compared to Egypt - God alone is responsible. As God tells Pharaoh (Exodus 7:17, 8:18, 9:14), He is master of the universe.
Still, the problem of "why" remains. The Torah seems to ask its readers to accept this lesson of history without explaining why God does what He does. Of course, a benevolent God need not justify saving the downtrodden from oppression; yet He subjects Himself to questioning if He admits to be the cause of that suffering. The message we have been discussing traditionally involves two other important components: reward and punishment. The Torah often warns that disobedience to God will lead to punishment while adherence to His law will yield rewards. This is the true meaning behind God's control of history - the nation of Israel's rise and fall is dependent on God - but not on a capricious God! And yet, the prediction to Abraham lacks any sense of retribution. Did Abraham himself do something which warranted the slavery? Why were the Jews condemned to such suffering?
The question I am posing is not a new one and indeed scholars across the ages have grappled with the problem of the torturing of millions of innocents. Some commentators have pinned the blame on Abraham himself, arguing that his descendants were punished for their ancestor's sins.
Let us begin with three opinions expressed in Tractate Nedarim 32a.
Rabbi Abahu said in Rabbi Elazar's name: Why was our father Abraham punished and his children doomed to Egyptian servitude for two hundred and ten years? Because he pressed scholars into his service, as it is written "He armed his dedicated servants (assumed to be Torah scholars) born in his own house" (Genesis 14:14). Samuel said: Because he went too far in testing the attributes [i.e., the promises] of the Lord, as it is written, "And he said Lord God whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?" (15:8). Rabbi Yochanan said: Because he prevented men from entering beneath the wings of the Shekhina, as it is written, "And the king of Sodom said unto Abraham, Give me the persons, and take the goods to thyself" (14:21).
While we could debate whether these actions of Abraham constitute grievous behaviour warranting generations of future suffering, the Talmud has set a important precedent. The Amoraim quoted here have no trouble transferring the consequences of a person's actions to his descendants. This difficult claim seemingly contradicts the literal meaning of Deuteronomy 24:15 and a gemara in Berakhot (7a) which argue that a person cannot be punished for the sins of his father. Nevertheless, later authors continue this line of argument, pointing their finger at the Israelites' ancestors.
We move next to the Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, 13th century) who provides his famous explanation in his commentary to Genesis chapter 12. After Abraham emigrates to the Land of Israel at God's request, Canaan is struck by famine. Abraham packs up his family and heads down to Egypt to wait out the plague. As they approach Egypt, Abraham asks his wife Sarah to conceal their marriage and - if anybody asks - to say that she is his sister. Abraham fears that any man who may be interested in Sarah will kill her husband to get to her. Sarah is in fact temporarily detained in Pharaoh's palace. The Ramban accuses Abraham of two misdemeanors in this story: firstly, he should never have left the promised land - God would have provided sustenance for his household; secondly, Abraham unnecessarily put his wife in danger - he similarly should have trusted in God to protect and rescue the couple from any harm. Because of these sins Abraham's descendants were doomed to the Egyptian exile.
Several centuries later, Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel (15th century) blames the slavery on another, more heinous crime - the brothers' sale of Joseph. Like the Ramban, the Abarbanel points out that the punishment was meted out in the location of the sin - the sons of Israel sent Joseph to an Egyptian exile, so that is where their children suffer the pains of their exile. Because the brothers threw Joseph into a pit - the male Israelite babies were thrown into the Nile. There are several serious problems with this theory. The Maharal (Rabbi Yehuda Loew ben Betzalel, 16th century) points out two. Firstly, it must be remembered that God told Abraham about the oppression long before his own son Yitzchak was born, never mind his great-grandsons! Of course, we could ignore the time factor and argue that God knew that in the future Abraham's great-grandsons would sell one of their brothers, and so He tells Abraham about that action's consequences. But that leads us into all sorts of problems with free will and whether the brothers were destined to sin - if they were, then punishing them is illogical.
Secondly, says the Maharal, it is quite clear from the story that God in His way guides the events of the Joseph story and that the reason the sale happened was to bring the family to Egypt - as Joseph himself says in 45:8. Moving to Egypt was the goal and the sale was merely the method; the sale was not the reason for the descent.
Lastly, I'd like to add a criticism of my own. While dealing with the question of how Joseph could have tormented his brothers when they came to Egypt to buy food, the Abarbanel explains that Joseph was testing them. He wanted to see if his brothers felt remorse for what they had done and gave them the ultimate test. By putting them in a position where they might have to sacrifice Benjamin's life, Joseph was trying to see whether they had learned anything about brotherhood in the past 22 years. Once Judah stands up for Benjamin, Joseph is convinced that the brothers have repented and he reveals himself (commentary to Genesis 43 - Answers #3 and 4).
Furthermore, the Abarbanel also argues that although the brothers did not deserve capital punishment for kidnapping since they were following God's plan (albeit unwittingly), they were still guilty of taking the nasty initiative that they did. The harsh treatment that they suffer at Joseph's hands served as punishment exacted by him and sanctioned by God (commentary to Genesis 42 - Answers #4 and 5).
Now, given that the Abarbanel feels that the brothers have both achieved penitence and have already been punished for the sin of the sale, how can God later create the oppression of millions as a consequence of the same crime? What does this say about God and forgiveness?
I'd like to begin my own position by quoting a verse that is often used in explaining the necessity for the entire Egyptian experience. In Deuteronomy 4:20, Moses recalls the salvation and says "the Lord took you and brought you out of Egypt, that iron blast furnace, to be His very own people, as is now the case." Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, 11th century) explains this image by stating that a blast furnace is used to purify gold. Rabbi Moshe Alshikh (16th century) expands this a little, claiming that during the years of slavery the nation of Israel was purged of both its sinful members and its unsavory characteristics of pride, hatred and cruelty. Those who survived the tortures of Egypt were true descendants of Abraham - merciful, shy and righteous. Those were the people who deserved to be rescued from Egypt and to receive the Torah.
This attitude towards the oppression veers away from the notion of punishment, suggesting that the years of hardship, beatings, labour and drowned infants were really in the best interests of the nation. The Ran (Rabbeinu Nissim Gerondi, 14th century) is quoted by the Abarbanel (commentary to Genesis 15) as positing exactly this theory: "The Egyptian exile had nothing to do with anybody's sin but rather was for the purpose of humbling the hearts of Israel so that they would be ready to receive the Torah. In essence, the oppression was YISURIN SHEL AHAVA - tough love." (I have been unable to locate the original quote from the Ran and would be grateful to any reader who could direct me to its whereabouts.)
The link that Rabbeinu Nissim has made between the Exodus and the Revelation is an obvious one. The celebration of these two events in Jewish tradition are connected by counting the days between them. It is my contention that the entire purpose of the two hundred year slavery was to prepare the nation for its ultimate destiny. Furthermore, MATAN TORAH - the giving of the Torah - would not have been possible without years of prior suffering.
At the end of a short paragraph known as parashat tzitzit, the Torah makes one of its many associations between Egypt and Sinai: "Thus shall you be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God. I the Lord am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, the Lord your God (Numbers 15:40-41)."
The Torah's assertion of the Jew's purpose has been neatly summarized: to follow the commandments of God. These verses seem to offer an explanation for this way of life - or at least some sort of link between the past and the present. The question we might ask is - what is the conjunction between these two verses? Why does the Torah remind its readers at just this point of God's earlier service to the nation? Perhaps the Torah is saying: Remember and observe the commandments since I am the one who saved you from Egypt. Or as Rashi puts it: on this condition I redeemed you - so that you would accept my decrees. The association is no longer a reminder but a demand. The Torah is basically saying that God did not save the nation just to stop their suffering; there was a more sublime motive involved: God wanted Israel to keep the Torah.
Early in Exodus when God calls on Moses to lead the nation to freedom, He tells him that upon deliverance, the nation will come to the very site of that first communication to worship God at the mountain (Exodus 3:11-12). The Torah then presents a seamless narrative continuing from the Exodus, through the split sea to Mount Sinai - scene of the revelation and presentation of the Ten Commandments. The plan was never merely to free the Israelites and leave them to fend for themselves, developing as a nation in any which way. God moved the people straight from the slavery of Egypt to the service of the Lord. At one point the Torah even draws a parallel between the two experiences of servitude: "The Children of Israel are servants to Me, they are My servants whom I took out of the land of Egypt, I am the Lord their God (Leviticus 25:55)."
The Ten Commandments themselves begin with the words "I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt from the house of slavery." It almost seems as if God is saying "before I tell you the commands which constitute my Torah - let me remind you what I have done for you. You owe me!" Perhaps God arranged the slavery of Egypt in order to create a sense of indebtedness among the people, so that they would feel obligated to accept the Torah. (Recognize also that God wanted to create a society of law, something that could never have been achieved under the conditions of slavery where the people could hardly dictate their own behavior.)
Lastly, as the Ran argued, the experience of slavery had the effect of making the Jews pliable. Why does God not explain the requirements of the Torah to the patriarchs and develop the nation of Israel gradually and undramatically, all without leaving the Land of Israel? Clearly, the revelation experience was a critical moment in the history of the Jews, perhaps most of all because it was witnessed by millions of people. Could God not have appeared then to the multitudinous descendants of Abraham in a central event taking place in Israel? God was intent on fashioning a new nation complete in every aspect of life. This could only be done with a people with no prior system of governance, social customs or philosophies. A content people living peacefully in its own land would have been far less willing to suddenly reconstitute its society even had they all witnessed a dramatic revelation such as that at Mount Sinai. But masses of people with no purpose and no rules, who are feeling tremendous gratitude to their savior, just might agree to follow the new directions dictated by God. (The Israelites were so overwhelmed by their salvation that they do not think to raise the complaint we are dealing with - why did God put us through this? As well, they quite possibly did not see the larger picture as it appears to us in the form of the Torah's first two books.) In short, to mold the Jewish nation, God knew that He had to start from scratch and build the people from the ground up. The low point of slavery soon became the foundation for the history, religion and national awareness of Israel.