Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedPR photo

As great as the destiny of revealing the word of God and tikun olam (rectifying the world) is – so is the great, long and torturous way to its fulfillment. As our Sages said, Torah, the Land of Israel, and the World to Come – are acquired through means of suffering (Berakhot 5a), because in order to transcend life’s existing boundaries, one must be willing to sacrifice with mesirut nefesh (self-devotion) one’s ordinary existence.

Therefore, in order for Israel to fulfill the destiny of the redemption of the world from its bondage and suffering, they had to first suffer from all types of evil man is capable of inflicting, experience terror and darkness – and exit all of it all with great wealth.

Therefore, the Children of Israel were destined to descend to Egypt, feel on their own flesh the suffering of slavery, and out of this, reveal the value of emunah (faith) and herut (freedom), as Avraham Aveinu was told in the Brit Bein ha-Betarim [Covenant of Parts] (Genesis 15: 12-14).

The decree was fulfilled, and the Children of Israel were slaves in Egypt. However, Hashem had mercy on Israel and calculated the four hundred years from the birth of Yitzchak, whie in practice, the bondage began after the death of Yosef, and lasted for about one hundred and twenty years.

When the time of their redemption came, Hashem revealed Himself to Moshe Rabbeinu, who became worthy to be Hashem’s messenger after being willing to sacrifice his life for protecting the Hebrew slave as one of his brethren.

The Pagan Concept – Power is Primary

The Egyptian kingdom was one of the largest and most important of the ancient kingdoms, and according to their pagan concept, power is primary. Consequently, the Nile River, the source of life in Egypt, is an idol.

This was true also in relation to human beings – the success attained by a person in the world, was a sign that the gods were on his side. Consequently, the strong are right. Pharaoh, king of Egypt, the most powerful king on earth, was a god, the son of the most powerful gods. This is how the Egyptians saw him, and this is how he saw himself. As our Sages said (Mekhilta): “Pharaoh called himself God, as the Torah says: ‘…who has said, My Nile is my own; I made it for myself’ (Ezekiel 29: 3).” Our Sages also said Pharaoh used to relieve himself while bathing in the river, so that his people would not know he too had to relieve himself like all other human beings (Rashi, Exodus 7:15).

The entire system of Egyptian law and government, including the subjugation of slaves, was built on their pagan concept, according to which, Pharaoh was the son of the gods of Egypt, and he ruled over all the peoples surrounding Egypt, because their idols surrendered to the gods of Egypt.

The Story of the Confrontation with Pharaoh

“Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Let My people go that they may celebrate a festival for Me in the wilderness.”

This demand posed a challenge to Pharaoh’s rule, and the pagan faith.

“But Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD that I should heed Him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, nor will I let Israel go.” They answered, “The God of the Hebrews has manifested Himself to us. Let us go, we pray, a distance of three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to the LORD our God…” and if you do not heed our call – He will punish you “with pestilence or sword” (Ibid. 5: 2-3).

Our Sages tell us that Pharaoh’s birthday was celebrated on that day; all the kings came to honor him, and brought gifts with which to adorn him. At one point, his servants came in, and said: There are two old men standing at the door. He said to them: Let them enter. When they entered, he looked at them and waited for them to adorn him with gifts. However, they did not even ask how he was doing.

He said to them: Who are you, and what do you want? They said to him: “We are messengers of HaKadosh Baruch Hu. Thus says the Lord: Let My people go that they may celebrate a festival for Me in the wilderness.” Pharaoh was infuriated, and said: I am the Lord of the world, and I created myself. Who is this Hashem that I should hear his voice to send Israel, and is so foolish as not to send me a crown when he comes to speak to me?! He searched in his books and found the names of all the idols of the nations, but did not find the God of the Hebrews, who Moses and Aaron said, had no body or figure. Pharaoh asked all his sages, but there was not one among them who knew Hashem.

When he heard that the God of the Hebrews was still threatening him, saying if he did not send His people, He would beat him with pestilence or a sword – Pharaoh was enraged, for if the God of the Hebrews has power, how can it be that His people are the most lowly slaves on earth, and how dare their God threaten me, and the powerful gods that stand by my side? (Shemot Rabbah 5:14).

Hashem Chose Slaves to be His People

However, Hashem saw the torture and suffering His people were going through in Egypt, heard their pain and their cries, and remembered the covenant he swore to their fathers. He struck Pharaoh and his idols with ten plagues, brought Israel out of Egypt to freedom, and redeemed them from Egypt. He gave them His Torah, and commanded them to repudiate idols, and adhere to the ways of morality, so as to rectify the world in His Kingdom.

“For God your Lord is the ultimate Supreme Being and the highest possible Authority. He is the great, mighty and awesome God, who does not give special consideration or take bribes. He brings justice to the orphan and widow, and loves the ger (foreigner), granting him food and clothing. You must also show love toward the ger, since you were gerim (foreigners) in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:17-19).

Emunah (faith) and musar (morality) are intertwined and interdependent. This fact was revealed in the Exodus from Egypt as well, for despite Israel’s being lowly slaves – Hashem kept the covenant and oath He had made with their fathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov, and redeemed them from Egypt.

In the entire world, as per the pagan concept, power was the primary value. Consequently, people valued the powerful and the rulers, and despised slaves, almost to the point where they were not considered human beings, rather, as the property of their masters. In contrast, Hashem chose that the greatest revelation ever would be precisely to the poor and humiliated slaves. He brought them out of captivity and brought them to Mount Sinai; to them, He revealed Himself in the mists of purity; to them, in His great love, He gave His Torah; and through them, He spoke to the distinguished and important of the world in all generations.

A Great Mixture of Nationalities Left with Them

When Israel left Egypt, many indigent, non-Jews joined them, as the Torah says:

“A great mixture of nationalities (erev rav) left with them” (Exodus 12:38).

Apparently, the reason for this was they saw there was a God who loved the weak, and wanted to join Him. The good ones wanted to adhere to His good way, while the bad ones sought to exploit His power, without taking responsibility for the revelation of Torah. Indeed, they were the first to betray Him and serve the Golden Calf.

Sacrifice of the Gods of Egypt

In order to prepare Am Yisrael for its exodus out of the bondage to Egypt and pagan faith, Hashem commanded Israel to sacrifice the Korban Pesach (Passover sacrifice), by means of which, Israel showed that they were no longer slaves to Egypt and their idols, but faithful to Hashem, the God of their fathers. The Egyptians considered the animals to represent very important idols, and in a normal situation, if they saw a person sacrificing a sheep or a goat – they would put him to death. However, Hashem commanded Israel that every family would take on the tenth of Nisan a sheep to sacrifice on the 14th day, and on the night of the 15th, they would eat it while preparing to leave.

The Children of Israel had to strengthen themselves in their faith in Hashem and not be afraid of the Egyptians. They had to keep the sheep in their house for four days, slaughter it in the Name of Hashem on the fourteenth day after midnight, thus declaring that the forces the Egyptians had turned into idols are nothing but tools to help serve Hashem. Not only that, but they were commanded to roast the Passover meat, to the point where all the Egyptians knew that Israel had received a command from Hashem to sacrifice the idols of Egypt, and if Egyptians came to observe, they would see that the Israelites had dared to smear its blood on the doorposts and lintels of their houses.

Only after repudiating avodah zara (idol worship) with mesirut nefesh (self-sacrifice), can one adhere to the belief in Emunat Ha-Yichud (belief in the Oneness of God), receive the Torah, and rectify the world. Consequently, denial of avodah zara is the foundation of Judaism, and as our Sages said: “Anyone who repudiates idolatry is called Yehudi (a Jew)” (Megillah 13a). Therefore, the first mitzvah that the Children of Israel were commanded as a people was to sacrifice the Korban Pesach.

The Mitzvah they Received before Leaving

Even before the ten plagues began, “God then spoke to both Moses and Aaron. He gave them instructions regarding the Israelites” (Exodus 6:13). What were these instructions? Our Sages said: “Commanded to withdraw from avodah zara” (Mekhilta, ibid), “and about the of setting slaves free” (Yerushalmi Rosh Hashana 3: 5). In other words, they were commanded to accept upon themselves that after they were set free and became established and had slaves, they would treat them with respect and not abuse them, and after six years, slaves would be set free and generously given gifts.

After many generations, Israel sinned in avodah zara, and also, did not set their slaves free after six years, and as a result of this, fell before the Babylonians, who destroyed the Holy Temple, enslaved the Jews, and exiled them from their Land (Jeremiah 34).

The Exodus from Egypt and Slavery to Idols

The Exodus from Egypt was at the same time an exodus to freedom from cruel enslavement to the Egyptians oppressors, and redemption from enslavement to pagan faith. Therefore, at the time Israel strengthened themselves in emunah and ate the Korban Pesach, Hashem struck the Egyptians and their gods, as written in the Torah:

“I will pass through Egypt on that night, and I will kill every first-born in Egypt, man and beast. I will perform acts of judgment against all the gods of Egypt. I alone am God” (Exodus 12:12).

The clearest expression of freedom from the pagan concept is that Israel adhered to herut (freedom) as a moral value. When other the nations of the world succeeded in overcoming their enslavers, they turned their former masters into slaves, because they continued to believe in the method by which it was proper for the strong to enslave the weak. Whereas Israel, even after the Egyptians were defeated, did not attempt to overcome and enslave them, but only to exit to freedom. Therefore, the memory of the days of slavery in Egypt remains with Israel forever as a moral lesson about how it is appropriate to treat gerim, and the weak. As the Torah says, “Do not oppress a ger. You know how it feels to be gerim, for you were gerim in Egypt” (Exodus 23: 9). Because in the emunah of emet (truth) – emunah and musar (morality) are united.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.