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Am Yisraelís Slavery in Egypt:


Generally, in the Tanakh, the suffering of the Jewish people is attributed to their sins. The slavery in Egypt is a major exception to this rule, because it seems thatAm Yisraelundergoes terrible suffering though no sins have been committed. Indeed, despite the fact thatYetziat Mitzrayimis repeatedly referred to throughout the Tanakh, at no point is a suggestion made that it is a consequence for the sins of the people.

Some Midrashim resolve this problem, by positing sins which must have led to the servitude in Egypt.Am Yisraelís attempt to assimilate is featured prominently in these Midrashim, where the Jewish nationís cultivation of Egyptian hairstyles and participation in Egyptian cultural activities is blamed for the eventual enslavement. More grave is the Midrashic account of the failure of the Jews in Egypt to circumcise their sons in their attempt to become more Egyptian.

Other Midrashim connect the Egyptian exile to earlier sins, such as the sale of Yoseph by his brothers (quoted by Maharal in the name of an anonymous, ďthere are those who sayĒ), Avrahamís departure from the land of Israel alongside his request to Sarai that she pose as his sister (Ramban, Bereishit 12:10; 15:12), as well as various criticisms of Avrahamís behavior during his attempt to save Lot in the war with the four kings (Gemara Nedarim 32a.)

Nechama Leibowitz cites a Midrash which adopts an interesting approach to this question. Noting that there are many moral commandments which seem to be directly connected to those events, Nechama maintains that there is an educational objective inAm Yisraelís enslavement in Egypt. In fact, the following ethical biblical principles are directly related to the enslavement ofAm Yisrael: the prohibition to oppress the stranger (Shemot 22:20; 23:9); the slaveís right to rest on Shabbat (Devarim 5:14-15); the requirement to give slaves presents upon his release from slavery (Devarim 15:14-15); the prohibition to compel the slave to engage in excessive labor(Vayikra 25:43); and, the obligation to redeem brothers from slavery (Vayikra 25:55).

In other words, the moral fabric of the Jewish nation is woven byAm Yisraelís experience of slavery. It is in this experience that Jews are meant to understand how to behave morally, how to exhibit compassion and cultivate a society of justice. This morality is intended to have universal repercussions as the Jewish nation is designated to be a light for all the nations, spreading its morality beyond the confines of the Jewish nation to the world at large. As Yeshayahu prophesies, whenAm Yisraelwill internalize the message ofYetziat Mitzrayim, find Godís justice and build a society of light, a society of justice and righteousness, then, ďNations shall walk in your light and kings in the shine of your radianceĒ (Yeshayahu 60:3).




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