As a young teen, I remember asking my teachers why the Jewish people needed to be enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years. Now, as our cycle of Torah readings has us once again focusing on Egypt, the same question arises once again: Was there a purpose to our slavery?
The answer found in many classical Jewish commentaries is that the basis for the covenant at Sinai is the redemption from Egypt. God could say: “I freed you from slavery, thereby proving that I have already fulfilled my part of the covenant – to take care of the Jewish people. Knowing this, you, Israel, should readily agree to enter into this covenant, which entails having no other gods and obeying my commandments.”
Another explanation, one that is commonly found in both classical and contemporary Torah interpretations, is the imperative that we remember that we were slaves in Egypt, and because of that experience, we must care for other people, especially those on the margins of society.
The commandment to remember that we were strangers or slaves in Egypt is repeated 36 times in the Torah, easily the most repeated commandment in our tradition. It is an essential, perhaps the essential, Jewish value: Jews are to work for justice at all times on behalf of oppressed people, based on the awareness that we were once slaves.
But I want to suggest a third explanation, one that combines elements of the first two. This interpretation is hinted at when we recite Kiddush, ushering in every Shabbat and yom tov. As we hold our cups aloft, we say the words “zecher le’yetziat Mitzrayim,” which reminds us to “remember our going out from Egypt.” We sanctify our Shabbat and Holy Days by remembering when and how we left the bondage of Egypt.
And it is not just slavery that we are to remember, but redemption as well!
Redemption is the real foundation for Judaism. When Abraham and Sarah first make the journey to Canaan, they are not ready to inherit the Promised Land. Their followers are still only a family, not yet a people. It is in Egypt that we become the people of Israel.
In Egypt, under the hand of Pharaoh, we witnessed how easy it is to mistreat people who are different from ourselves; it was simple for Pharaoh to convince the Egyptians to persecute, enslave, even murder, the neighbors who they perceived as different.
We needed to experience slavery before settling in the Promised Land. The prelude to a people having their own country is to see how easy it is to discriminate against others.
What will happen in Canaan to the indigenous people who are already living there? Should we pretend they don’t exist, like the new Pharaoh, who forgot about Joseph?
When we establish our country, how will we treat the new immigrants who will inevitably come? Will we remember that Abraham was an immigrant? Or will we echo Pharaoh’s words to the Egyptians: We need to persecute the swarming Israelite newcomers lest they replace us.
When the Israelites left Egypt as a free people, they took with them the bones of Joseph. They did not forget Joseph. They carried with them their past and the lessons of Egypt. They also put on their shoulders matzah, to acknowledge that redemption is possible and that it is to be shared, not hoarded.
To walk in God’s ways is to spread freedom wherever we go.
RABBI ALAN FRAM is retired. He serves on the Steering Committee of the Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty and is the organizer and rabbi for Soulful Shabbat, a Saturday morning service that emphasizes silence, chanting, gentle stretching and meditation, along with traditional davening and Torah study. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.