Written by Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller
After coming down to Egypt as a family, the Jews come of age in that country. Egypt, a culture that is alien and whose values were at odds with our Torah and way of life, is the cradle of our nationhood. The possuk (Devarim 4:20 Yirmiyahu 11:4) refers to this experience as the כור הברזל – the smelting furnace. This is not the melting pot that American immigrants experienced when they came to these shores. It was a crucible of searing pain and suffering.
While the written Torah’s detail of this experience is terse, the sages (in the Gemara and the Midrashim) elaborate on the pure evil and terror that was wrought upon our ancestors. We dwell upon this experience at our Seder on Pesach and the Torah expects us to remember that we were slaves in Egypt. Clearly, this was a learning experience from a loving G-D. If so, what are the lessons we are to learn that resonate throughout the generations and are relevant to us today?
While the answer to this question is multi-faceted, let us look at some of the more obvious ideas and themes that the Egyptian experience taught us. The first is that we can withstand a lot of adversity if we stand together. For example, when Moshe encountered two rivals, Dasan and Avirum, fighting and they insinuated that they had betrayed him to Pharaoh, he exclaimed, “Now the matter is understood.” Rashi explains this statement to mean that Moshe now understood the reason for the Jews’ suffering. This betrayal and lack of loyalty and respect of a fellow Jew (who had killed to defend a hapless Jew being beaten to death) was the basis for the terrible suffering of the nation. When we left Egypt, we had to demonstrate that we had corrected this national flaw by lending each other precious items, displaying our trust of each other. (See Shmos 11:2.)
The next theme illustrated in the parsha is that we need to communicate with Hashem in order to merit His salvation. While Hashem had promised to redeem us, that promise was only activated when He heard the cries of pain and anguish which the Jews directed to Him. This is an important lesson. We cannot think since Hashem is aware of our situation, we don’t need to do anything. We need to ask for His help for Him to respond.
A third important lesson demonstrated is the fact that culture is not the same thing as morality. We are often deceived into thinking that human advancement in the arts and the sciences produces superior human beings who are better equipped to make moral and just choices. Egypt was the seat of human civilization; yet they abused other humans and engaged in morally decadent behavior. This lesson was not lost on the Jewish people who experienced it again in the Greek period and most recently in Nazi Germany. We respect and appreciate the wisdom and revelations that Hashem gives each generation, but we need to balance that with the firm adherence to the moral values which Hashem gave us in His Torah.