Parshat Bo: Educational slavery

In order for the satisfied to really understand hunger, he must experience the sensation of hunger. Only then can he actually relate to hunger correctly.

Torah scribe 521 (photo credit: Courtesy Derech AMI)
Torah scribe 521
(photo credit: Courtesy Derech AMI)
We read in this week’s parsha about the last stages of Am Yisrael’s exile in Egypt. At first glance, this exile seems surprising and confounding.
Why was it that before God chose us as the nation that would receive the Torah and fulfill the eternal role of being a light unto nations, was Am Yisrael oppressed in Egypt, demeaned and enslaved? Was it a coincidence that in the process of choosing the nation we went through slavery and oppression, or was it planned and part of the process? Did we benefit from it? In the Torah, we read a clear answer to the question of whether or not this was planned and a process. During the “brit ben habetarim” – the Covenant of the Halves – God promised the patriarch Abraham that a great nation would come of him that would carry an eternal message for the entire world. But along with this promise, God revealed to Abraham that the process would not be an easy or simple one.
“Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them... and afterward shall they come out with great substance.”
(Genesis 15:13-14) After reading these clear words, our wonder only intensifies. Why? Why was it necessary for Am Yisrael to be a nation of slaves before entering its land and conducting an independent life there? Why did Am Yisrael’s mission of spreading the light of faith and morality in the world have to be preceded by a period of oppression and degradation? We find the answer to this question in Moshe Rabbenu’s parting speech from Am Yisrael prior to his death. In this long speech which is spread out over much of the Book of Deuteronomy, he refers to Am Yisrael’s period of slavery in Egypt as the “iron melting pot” – the oven where iron is heated and then shaped into an attractive utensil.
This expression teaches us that the period of slavery was actually a period of education.
Before Am Yisrael was to sit in its land, independent, proud and secure, it had to undergo an educational process in Egypt that was not so simple.
How was the nation educated during this difficult time? The answer to this is explicitly written in the Torah. The Torah warns us seven times about our treatment of the stranger, the slave, the poor, and the unfortunate, and explains that the basis for this warning is the nation’s period of slavery in Egypt.
For example: “Love therefore the stranger; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
(Deuteronomy 10:19) Another example: “Thou shalt not oppress a hired servant that is poor and needy, whether he be of thy brethren, or of thy strangers that are in thy land within thy gates... thou shalt not pervert the justice due to the stranger... But thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in Egypt... therefore I command thee to do this thing.” (Deuteronomy 24:14-18) There are five more places where the Torah warns us that we should behave toward the weak in society with justice and compassion – because we, the nation sitting its own land, were in the past slaves in Egypt.
God wanted to choose Am Yisrael, give it the Torah, be good to it, and bequeath the Land of Israel to it. But this promise was accompanied by a big risk. The nation might feel proud and self-confident which would be expressed by treating the weak, the strangers, the orphans, and the slaves in an estranged and unfair manner.
Therefore, the nation had to undergo an educational process, to experience the taste of humiliation, to live oppressed and enslaved, in order for the nation’s collective memory to always contain the knowledge that a weak man is still a man deserving of rights just as anyone else, and deserving of honest and fair treatment.
In order for the satisfied to really understand hunger, he must experience the sensation of hunger. Only then can he actually relate to hunger correctly. For a nation to remember to always behave according to morality and justice, it has to experience – before becoming a nation that lives in its own land – discrimination and degradation.
Only then can a nation clearly understand the feelings of the weak and needy, take pity on them and treat them honestly, and live according to the mission it was given – to be a light unto nations.
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz is rabbi of the Western Wall and its holy sites.