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Parshat Shemot


Why do Am Yisrael suffer such terrible oppression in Egypt? Is it at all deserved?

Several midrashim connect the Egyptian exile to sins committed by Avraham. In a well-known passage (Bereishit ), the Ramban explains that Avramís lack of faith in God is responsible for these terrible events. As the Ramban states, both Avramís departure from Israel during a famine, as well as his declaration that Sarai is his sister, seem problematic.

The Gemara (Nedarim 32a) takes this approach one step further, claiming that Avramís descendants are punished because he made Torah scholars cease their studies to go to war to free Lot! Another opinion suggests that Avram expressed doubt in Godís ability when he asked how he could be sure that he would inherit the Land (Bereishit 15:8). Rabbi Yochanan claims that Avram discouraged people from converting. Others claim that Avram did not teach Torah gently enough!

This is strange indeed. It is one thing to blame Avraham for behavior which does appear to be questionable. But the excessive attention paid to Avrahamís wrongdoing seems unwarranted in attempting to explain Am Yisraelís slavery. Why focus negatively on Avraham, our gentle and pious forefather?

The most apparent reason that so many midrashim point a finger at Avraham is because he is personally informed, during the brit ben ha-betarim (Bereishit 15), of Am Yisraelís future exile and suffering. The fact that the decree was already in place during his lifetime suggests that he is responsible for it. There are, moreover, many salient linguistic connections between Avramís journey to Egypt during the famine in Bereishit 12 and Am Yisraelís subsequent descent. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 40:6) notes these connections, as does the Ramban. While the Midrash does not see this as something negative, the Ramban, as we noted, does.

Nevertheless, the argument can be advanced that even if Avram did sin by going down to Egypt and telling everyone that Sarai was his sister (and not all mefarshim agree that these were sins), his sins do not seem so terrible as to warrant this degree of punishment visited upon his children!

Let us examine, then, another story in Avramís life, which contains even more direct parallels to the story of Israelís enslavement. In fact, the story of Saraiís mistreatment of her Egyptian servant, Hagar, seems far more problematic than the one of Avramís going to Egypt. Avramís willingness to give Sarai free rein to do what she wishes with Hagar makes him a part of this story as well.

1. Now Sarai, Abramís wife, had borne him no children.She had an Egyptian maidservant whose name was Hagar.2. And Sarai said to Abram, "See, now, Hashem has restrained me from bearing; consort, now, with my maidservant, perhaps I will be built up through her." And Abram heeded the voice of Sarai.4. So Sarai, Abram's wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her maidservant Ė after ten years of Abram's dwelling in the Land of Canaan Ė and gave her to Abram her husband, to him as a wife.4. He consorted with Hagar and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was lowered in her esteem. 5. So Sarai said to Abram, "The outrage against me is due to you!It was I who gave my maidservant into your bosom, and now that she sees that she has conceived, I became lowered in her esteem. Let Hashem judge between me and you!" 6. Abram said to Sarai, "Behold! Ė your maidservant is in your hand; do to her as you see fit."And Sarai dealt harshly with her, so she fled her. 7. An angel of Hashem found her by the spring of water in the desert, at the spring on the road to Shur.8. And he said, "Hagar, maidservant of Sarai, where have you going?"And she said, "I am running away from Sarai my mistress."9. And an angel of Hashem said to her, "Return to your mistress, and submit yourself to her domination." 10. And an angel of Hashem said to her, "I will greatly increase your offspring, and they will not be counted for abundance." 11. And an angel of Hashem said to her, "Behold, you wil conceive, and give birth to a son; you shall name him Ishmael, for Hashem has heard your prayer. 13. And he shall be a wild-ass of a man: his hand against everyone, and everyone's hand against him; and over all his brothers shall he dwell." 13. And she called the Name of Hashem Who spoke to her "You are the God of Vision," for she said, "Could I have seen even here after having seen?" 14. Therefore the well was called "The Well of the Living One." It is between Kadesh and Bered.

The similarities to Am Yisraelís enslavement are striking. Sarai afflicts her Egyptian maidservant, who flees to the desert, to the Desert of Shur (see Shemot ). God hears her suffering and she receives a blessing of fruitfulness. The result of this story is Yishmael.

While the Ramban notes that Sarai undoubtedly sinned here, as did Avram in allowing Sarai to do as she wished (Ramban on Bereishit 16:6), and that therefore Hagar had a son who would be a thorn in Israelís side, he does not explicitly connect the enslavement in Egypt and this event. Nonetheless, it is difficult to avoid that conclusion. The fact that the entire story of Yetziat Mitzrayim begins with the sale of Joseph to the Yishmaelim should immediately indicate the connection between these stories, as Hagarís descendants ďreturn the favorĒ by forcing Saraiís descendants to experience themselves Hagarís suffering.

Even if Saraiís reaction to Hagarís taunts is understandable, many mefarshim (Radak, Ramban) consider Saraiís behavior excessively harsh. There is no tolerance for cruelty in Judaism. Judaism simply demands a higher moral standard. Perhaps the story of Saraiís harshness to a servant is precisely what created the need to reverse the roles so that Am Yisrael, as part of their formation as a nation, would experience suffering, would know what it means to be a slave, weak and vulnerable. In this way, the moral fabric of the Jewish nation is woven by its own experience of slavery. It is from this experience that Jews are meant to learn how to behave in a morally superior fashion.

The educational aspect of the slavery in Egypt has been noted by many (such as Nechama Leibowitz). This is especially evident given that so many moral commandments are directly connected to our experience as slaves in Egypt:

- do not oppress the stranger (Shemot ; 23:9);

- the slaveís right to rest on Shabbat (Devarim -15);

- giving the slave gifts upon his release from slavery (Devarim -15);

- not working slaves harshly (Vayikra 25:43);

- the obligation to work to redeem our brothers from slavery (Vayikra 25:55).

Thus, Yetziat Mitzrayim is an event that corrects Saraiís behavior, while at the same time educating and elevating the nascent nation to a morally superior position. This new morality is intended to have universal repercussions, as Israel is meant to be a light to the nations, spreading a humane approach and teaching the world how to be sensitive in a manner that only those who have themselves experienced cruelty can understand.




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