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Shemot | The Exile in Egypt - Process or Punishment?

In memory of Channa Schreiber z"l.
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          The central theme of the first half of the book of Shemot is the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt and their miraculous salvation by the hand of God.  The captivating story of the Exodus is one of the pivotal narratives of the Torah and is fundamental from both national/historical and religious/theological perspectives.  It is through the Exodus that the people of Israel establish themselves both as an independent nation and as the nation of God.  The question which we wish to grapple with this week is why did the history of the people unfold in the manner in which it did?  Why was it necessary for the children of Israel to go into exile in Egypt and suffer oppression and slavery?  What prevented their immediate inheritance of the land of Israel, as promised by God to the forefathers? 

          To answer this question we must revert to the first mention of the exile in Egypt, in the book of Genesis: 

"As the sun was about to set, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a great dark dread descended upon him.  And He [God] 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 ... And they shall return here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete"  (Genesis 15:12-14,16). 

          God reveals to Abraham the future enslavement of his descendants and eventual salvation.  However, not only are the facts concerning the future of his offspring revealed to him, but their rationale as well, "for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete" (v. 16).  It is evident from this verse that the Israelite experience in Egypt is not an accidental historical development.  Rather, it is part of a greater divine plan.  The purpose of the Israelites' sojourn in Egypt is to delay their inheritance of the land of Israel until the Amorites, the indigenous inhabitants of the land, sin sufficiently to deserve having their land expropriated. 

          Does this stated rationale fully explain the Israelite experience in Egypt?  The Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, Provence, 1160-1235) believes it does not.  He points out that the moral state of the Amorites explains only why the Israelites could not immediately inherit the land of Israel and had to reside temporarily in Egypt.  It does not explain why the Israelites were enslaved and oppressed while there. 

"The slavery and oppression were PUNISHMENT for their [the Israelites'] bad deeds and sins in Egypt as stated in the prophecy of Ezekiel: "They rebelled against Me and did not want to obey Me.  None of them threw away the detestable things they saw, and they did not abandon the idols of Egypt.  I decided to pour out My anger upon them and drain My wrath against them in the land of Egypt" (Ezekiel 20:8). 

          According to the Radak, the enslavement of the Israelites by Egypt is a result of sin.  Their oppression is not a coincidental historical occurrence but rather a divine punishment for wrongdoing.  What was the sin which incurred the harsh retribution of slavery and oppression? 

          Our Sages (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Nedarim 32a) offer three explanations all of which attribute the sin for which the children of Israel were enslaved to Abraham.  We will focus on one of these explanations, that of Shmuel (Babylonian sage, end of second century to mid-third century). 

"Why was our father Abraham punished and his children doomed to Egyptian servitude? ... Shmuel said: Because he went too far in testing the attributes [i.e., the promises] of the Lord as it is written, 'by what shall I know that I shall inherit it?'" (Genesis 15:8). 

          Shmuel is of the opinion that the sin for which the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt is Abraham's lack of faith in God.  Abraham responds to God's promise of bequeathing him the land of Israel by asking "by what shall I know that I shall inherit it?" (Genesis 15:8).  He is not satisfied with God's promises and so he requests guarantees, concrete manifestations of his rights over the land.  Abraham's uncertainty regarding the fulfillment of God's promise incurs the punishment of oppression of his offspring in Egypt. 

          This interpretation, like the others brought down by our Sages (see Nedarim ibid.), is quite astounding.  If anything, Abraham is, to the contrary, the major source of merit for the nation of Israel.  It is by virtue of Abraham's faith as evinced throughout his life, that the people of Israel are chosen and the land of Israel promised to them.  Why, then, is Abraham, of all people, blamed for the misery experienced in Egypt? 

          The answer to our question is textual.  As stated above, God reveals to Abraham the future enslavement of the people of Israel.  Our Sages interpret that this revelation is not only to inform Abraham of future events but a punishment, an outcome of Abraham's faults.  God's revelation of the future (Genesis 15:13 ff.) immediately follows Abraham's inquiry "by what shall I know that I shall inherit it?" (Genesis 15:8).  Shmuel infers from the juxtaposition of the verses that the future of the people is a consequence of Abraham's behavior.  [Although the other Sages cited in Tractate Nedarim agree that the slavery was a punishment for Abraham's behavior, they do not deem Abraham's inquiry to be the sin for which the Israelites were enslaved.  Instead, they locate the sins in the preceding chapter, chapter 14, in Abraham's conduct in the war against the four kings.] 

          We now understand the textual source for our Sages' interpretations.  However there remains a philosophical question regarding their position.  How could future generations suffer for the sins of previous generations?  Why do Abraham's descendants suffer for his sins while he remains unscathed? 

          The key to answering this question lies in a deeper understanding of the Sages' interpretations.  I believe it is a mistake to think that our Sages considered an isolated sin of Abraham to be the cause for the oppression of the whole nation of Israel many years later.  The Sages' intention is to point out the sin which incurs the punishment in Egypt.  They turn to Abraham, as the father of the nation, in attempting to detect the existence of certain tendencies within the nation.  The sins ascribed to Abraham are not evaluated so, in Scripture, and seem trivial to us.  In truth, the Sages point to them as the root of future transgressions among the descendants of Abraham.  The people are punished for their own sins.  It is they who, while in Egypt, evince deficiencies in faith.  According to Shmuel, the roots of these are to be found in Abraham the patriarch. 

          The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1274) takes a similar approach to that of our Sages, stating that Abraham's actions led to the enslavement in Egypt.  However, he pinpoints a different sin perpetrated by Abraham. 

"His [Abraham's] leaving the land concerning which he had been commanded from the beginning (see Genesis 12:1), on account of the famine, was also a sin he committed, for in the famine God would redeem him from death.  It was because of this deed that the exile in the land of Egypt at the hand of Pharaoh was decreed for his children" (Ramban on Genesis 12:10) 

          Like Shmuel, the Ramban considers Abraham's sin to be that of lack of faith.  However, this deficiency expresses itself not in Abraham's words (or request) but rather in his actions.  The Ramban critiques Abraham for leaving Israel and moving to Egypt during the famine.  Abraham should have had faith in God's providing for his needs.  This lack of faith is apparently what also leads Jacob's family to go down to Egypt during the famine of their period.  Shortcomings in faith which lead to the abandoning of the land of Israel in times of distress have their seeds in Abraham and continue with his descendants and eventually incur the punishment of oppression of the Israelites in Egypt. 

          The Abrabanel (Don Isaac Abrabanel, Spain, 1437-1508) expresses reservations regarding the above interpretations of our Sages and of the Ramban: 

"These interpretations are not only problematic, each, in and of itself, but they also share one common flaw; Abraham who perpetrated the sin was not punished as is written: "As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried at a ripe old age" (Genesis 15:15) 

          Although the Abrabanel does not elaborate on the individual drawbacks of each interpretation, I would venture to guess that he questions whether the examples construed by our Sages to be sins should be viewed in such a light.  The major difficulty in our Sages' interpretations is that Scripture does not intimate any negative evaluation of Abraham's behavior in the examples cited.  If anything, the opposite is the case (see Genesis 15:1,18).  The Abrabanel then offers his own novel explanation for the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt: 

"If we should hold that the exile in Egypt came about as a result of sin, it is improper that we should blame our father Abraham; God forbid that he would sin.  It is much more plausible to attribute the sin to the sons of Jacob.  The Torah testifies to the fact that they sinned a horrible sin in their unjustified hatred towards their brother Joseph and in their plot to kill him upon his visiting them, and in their throwing him into a pit and in their selling him to the Egyptians ... and since they sinned they deserved to be punished, and since they sinned in Egypt by selling their brother as a slave there, it was only appropriate that they should also be punished in Egypt and be slaves there, they and their offspring for many years.  And just as they threw Joseph into the pit, all their newborn males were thrown into the Nile, and just as they caused Joseph to be brought down to Egypt, Joseph caused them to move to Egypt ...." 

          According to the Abrabanel, it is not Abraham, but rather, the sons of Jacob, who are responsible for the nation's suffering in Egypt.  The Abrabanel buttresses his position with many examples of poetic justice, of punishment which parallels the sin which was committed.  This explanation sheds new light on the significance of the final chapters of the book of Genesis.  The conflict between Joseph and his brothers does not just describe HOW the Israelites arrived in Egypt but also WHY.  The lengthy narrative of Joseph illustrates the moral depravity for which the family was exiled and eventually oppressed by the Egyptians.  The relationship between the end of the book of Genesis and the book of Exodus is not just one of chronology but also of crime and punishment. 

          Our Sages, as cited in Shemot Rabba (a compilation of homiletical interpretations of our Sages on the book of Exodus) have a different understanding of the sin for which the Israelites were oppressed in Egypt: 

"When Joseph died, they [the Israelites] abolished the covenant of circumcision, saying: 'Let us become like the Egyptians.'  You can infer this from the fact that Moses had to circumcise them on their departure from Egypt.  As soon as they had done so, God converted the love with which the Egyptians loved them [the Israelites] into hatred." 

          A similar idea is echoed in a different interpretation of our Sages on the verse "And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly ... and the land WAS FILLED WITH THEM" (Exodus 1:7): 

"The amphitheaters and circuses were full of them" (Yalkut Shimoni, an anthology of homiletical interpretations of our Sages on the whole Bible, dated to the 13th century). 

          Upon settling in their new abode in Egypt, the Israelites began to conceal their Jewishness.  They wished to obscure any physical manifestations of their being different from the Egyptians and therefore did not circumcise their boys.  In addition, they were immersed in Egyptian culture, enthusiastically attending Egyptian cultural events and adopting their modes of entertainment.  Egyptian sports and theater were popular pastimes amongst the new Jewish immigrants. 

          The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, Lithuania, 1817-1893) adds another dimension to the Israelites' assimilation: 

"And the land WAS FILLED WITH THEM" (Exodus 1:7) - They settled not only in the land of Goshen which had been set aside for them and was predominantly Israelite, but in the whole of Egypt even in the areas populated by Egyptians .... Wherever they were able to acquire a dwelling, there they resided.  This is attested to in the plague of the firstborn where Scripture states that God passed over the door-posts of the Israelites in Egypt implying that many Israelites dwelled amongst the Egyptians ... Scripture informs us of the reason for the Egyptians' hatred and the royal decrees against them [the Israelites] ... All this came about because they violated Jacob's wish that they should live apart from the Egyptians in Goshen ... and this is the reason why we suffer persecution in every generation, because we do not desire to keep apart from the nations." 

          The Israelites assimilated both culturally and physically.  They left the Jewish neighborhoods and preferred to dwell in Egyptian ones.  Although their father Jacob was wise enough to foresee the dangers and therefore requested that they dwell separately in Goshen, they did not comply with their father's wish and settled in all sections of Egypt.  According to our Sages the reason for the oppression of the Israelites by the Egyptians is their turning their backs on their Jewish heritage and their desire to ape Egyptian culture.  The Netziv adds that this is the reason for our persecution not only in Egypt but also throughout all of Jewish history. 

          We have so far seen several different rationales offered for the persecution of the Israelites in Egypt.  Shmuel the Sage and the Ramban believe that the enslavement of the Israelites is rooted in Abraham's sin.  The Abrabanel suggests that it was a punishment for the brothers' treatment of Joseph, while our Sages and the Netziv considered it a punishment for the nation's assimilation in Egypt.  The common denominator of all these interpretations is that they consider the oppression of the Israelites in Egypt a punishment. 

          However, the Abrabanel, citing Rabbi Crescas (Rabbi Chisdai Crescas, Spain, d. 1412?) raises a totally different possibility of understanding the Israelite experience in Egypt.  The enslavement may be understood not as a punishment but rather a stage in the development of the people of Israel.  God desired that the formation of the nation as His chosen people include their sojourn in Egypt and eventual divine salvation.  The experience of the people in Egypt is a preparation for receiving the Torah and inheriting the land of Israel.  According to Rabbi Crescas, God desired to save the people in a supernatural manner thereby revealing Himself and His might so that the people could have no doubt in His existence.  The people's enslavement set the stage for God saving them with His "outstretched arm," by displaying the awesome ten plagues and other mighty miracles.  Only after witnessing these miracles, are the people ready to become the people of God and commit themselves to the performance of God's commands.  This conception of the sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt is intimated by Scripture: 

"I have hardened his [Pharaoh's] heart and the hearts of his advisors in order that I may display these miraculous signs among them, and that you may recount to your sons and your sons' sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I performed miraculous signs among them - in order that you may know that I am the Lord" (Exodus 10:1,2). 

          Indeed, the first of the ten commandments, the obligation to believe in God, is based on God's having taken the nation out of Egypt: "I am God your Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage" (Exodus 20:2). 

          The Abrabanel adds that the sojourn in Egypt was not only aimed at the Israelites but also at the Egyptians.  Egypt was the center of idolatry and witchcraft.  God wished to impress upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians that He is the only God and destroy their skewed idolatrous beliefs.  The exile of the people of Israel in Egypt aims at impressing upon both the Israelites and the Egyptians the existence and supremacy of God.  Support for this position may also be found in Scripture: 

"And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand over Egypt and bring out the Israelites from their midst" (Exodus 7:5). 

          This approach considers the oppression a tool for setting the stage for God's miraculous intervention.  The purpose of the Israelites' sojourn in Egypt is their eventual salvation.  This position attaches no inherent importance in the actual enslavement.  I believe that if we wish to adopt a position which does not view the enslavement as a punishment but rather part of a divine plan for the creation of the people of Israel, we must search for an explanation which attaches significance not only to the salvation of the people but also to their enslavement. 

          The sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt is indeed part of God's plan to create a chosen people.  However, the enslavement is as important as the salvation.  The enslavement infuses God's deliverance of the people with added significance.  It defines the relationship between God and the people of Israel after they are delivered.  By freeing the Israelites from their taskmasters God acquires rights over them; the delivered become the "slaves" of God.  This idea is expressed in the following verse: 

"For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants: they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt, I am God your Lord" (Leviticus 25:55). 

          The exile of the Israelites in Egypt is part of a divine plan for the establishment of the nation of Israel, the nation of God.  It is in part to stall the inheritance of the land of Israel till the indigenous population loses its rights to the land.  However, it is also internally motivated.  The nation must be deserving of inheriting the promised land.  The right of the people to the land rests in its covenantal relationship with God.  The nature and character of this relationship is forged in God's deliverance of the people from Egyptian bondage.  The people of Israel are now the servants of God.  Just as a slave's existence is totally directed towards the fulfillment of tasks determined by his owner, so too is the people's existence completely dedicated to the fulfillment of the divine will.  However, while Egyptian slavery was characterized by hard physical labor, oppression and degradation, the servitude of God is one of spiritual growth and refinement.  Obedience and commitment to the performance of God's commandments, of His moral code, free every individual and the nation, as a whole, from servitude of one's fellow man.  Paradoxically, once Israel commits itself to total servitude of God, it acquires its liberty and independence.

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