The book of Shemot opens with the reminder that all seventy members of Yaakov’s family are now residing in Egypt. Unlike Joseph, who asks his brothers on his deathbed to ensure they bring his bones to be buried in the land chosen by G-d, none of the other brothers mention returning to Canaan. It seems there was a tradition that they needed to be in exile in Egypt in according with Avraham’s vision at the Brit Bein HaBetarim (Bereishit Ch. 15). This can be understood from the fact that in Bereishit 50:25 Joseph speaks about leaving Egypt only “when G-d remembers you.”
But why were the Jews exiled specifically to Egypt?
In the first chapter of Parshat Shemot, verse seven tells us that initially the Jews did well in Egypt, multiplying and spreading out. According to the Netziv, this spreading outside of the land of Goshen and wanting to fit in is what led to the Egyptian’s hatred for them.
The Kli Yakar goes as far as to say that the words (1: 7) “and they increased very much” is referring to gaining wealth. So it seems that before they became slaves the Jewish people were successful in Egypt. Since Egypt was the “modern” nation of its day, that gave the Jews the opportunity to learn all the latest skills – construction, working with precious metals, dying and weaving cloth and the most advanced farming techniques. These are all skills that will be in high demand for the construction of the Tabernacle later in the book of Sehmot and eventually for building their own country. As the Midrash (Sifre Acharei Mot 8:8) points out, when the Torah later says not to follow the ways of Egypt it is only referring to the forbidden relationships; following their methods of building and planting is totally fine!
Perhaps the most important reason as to why the Jews needed to be in exile in Egypt was to learn how it felt to be a stranger. Already in the first section of laws given after the Ten Commandments, the Torah (Shemot 22:20) tells us “you shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in Egypt”. Shadal comments there that there are two aspects to this commandment. One is that we should have mercy on the stranger being that we remember how difficult it was to be in a similar situation. The other is that from our experience as strangers we saw how G-d punished those who oppressed us, and thus will punish all who cause a stranger to cry out to him.
These two lessons are so important that the mitzvah to take care of the stranger appears repeatedly throughout the rest of the Torah, especially in the book of Devarim (22 times!). In one of the mentions there (24:18), Rashi connects these two ideas and explains that G-d redeemed us from Egypt just so that we could be kind to others. Sforno adds there that when a Jew remembers all that G-d did for him in Egypt, protecting him and raising him out of slavery, he will be inspired to treat the stranger the same.
The powerful lessons from the Jewish people’s sojourn in Egypt are ones that are still relevant today. Take advantage of all the information and progress out there, but make sure to use those skills in your worship of G-d, too. And always remember how you felt at your lowest point and make sure that no one around you, no matter what their background or abilities, are made to feel the same way.
Dedicated in memory of Yaakov ben Avraham and Sarah Aharonov z"l
This week's Dvar Torah is by Elena Jackson, a friend of Torah MiTzion, currently Head Nurse of “Shekel” Jerusalem (Inclusion for people with Disabilities) For Comments- [email protected]
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