Our parsha opens with a definition of the purpose of all the signs and wonders associated with the Exodus from Egypt. We discover that aside from the redemption of Israel from their subjugation, there is another purpose: “And in order that you shall tell to your children and your grandchildren what I did to make Egypt suffer”. Not only is Israel saved from slavery, but the events are choreographed in such a way that the memory of what was done to the Egyptians will be remembered for all generations.
Why must we remember and recount what God did to make the Egyptians suffer? Is it not sufficient that we tell of our own salvation and redemption? After we study these verses, the question becomes an even more acute one: not only is there a principle of recounting what God did to the Egyptians from generation to generation, but in fact it becomes clear that God planned the Exodus from the very beginning in such a way that it would include a lengthy chapter on what He did to Egypt, forming the foundation of the story.
These difficulties led some commentators to explain that the word “hit’alelut”, rather than being understood to mean “what God did [to the Egyptians]”, in the sense of a cruel game played with the victim, in accordance with the noun “ta’alul” (as Rashi explains it), should rather be understood as being derived from the word “’ilah”, meaning “reason” or “justification”, in the context of a process or the plot of a story. The difficulty inherent in this interpretation is that while it solves the problem that arises from the specific word in the verse (which, at first glance, would seem to have negative connotations and hence seems inappropriate when describing Divine actions), it does nothing to solve the more general problem: even without the word “hit’alelut”, we find ourselves wondering about the Divine planning of the Exodus. Could God not have started at the very end, from the plague of darkness or the death of the firstborn, and then – while the Egyptians were paralyzed with fear or in mourning – commanded Israel to quickly flee? Why is the Exodus such a long, drawn-out, cruel process causing so much suffering to the Egyptians? And if we want to propose that this was their just punishment – must we recall it in such minute detail? Are we not rejoicing over their misfortune?
In the western world, saturated with the influence of Christian culture, it is difficult for people to accept this type of behavior – especially from God! This is not how a good Christian behaves. According to his faith he must find a way to liberate the unfortunates while having mercy on the wicked, rather than making them suffer.
But the God of the Hebrews does not pretend to be merciful and kind all the time. The story of the Exodus teaches us a very important message – even if it is not a pleasant one for human rulers to hear: world leaders play the “political game” believing that the control over events is in their hands. This “game” has many victims: victims of war, poverty, lack of proper planning, or unjust distribution of resources. What the Exodus from Egypt teaches us is that God is also a participant in these games – and not a particularly lenient one. The wicked rulers who play with human life and dignity can expect to become the victims of their own games, because there is one Player Who can outplay them all.
The idea of reward and punishment, which the Torah of Israel introduced to the world, is unlike the Christian ideal of surrendering to or indulging everyone and having mercy on them. It is important for us to remember, and also to tell your children and their children after them: anyone who causes others to suffer, who plays with human life, will ultimately see his abuse heading back towards himself. His era will end with him and his nation becoming the true victims. Sometime it is specifically reactions of indulgence and surrender that allow evil to spread, unbridled and unlimited. The Torah teaches us that Paro’s game ended in the Red Sea: “The horse and its rider He has thrown into the sea”. The huge waves turned the splendor of the Egyptian army into ruins.
It was for this reason that the Exodus was planned as it was. Not only to save Israel from the suffering of slavery, but also to save the world from the suffering that is caused by pride and arrogance. Until all the rulers of the world understand that human games have a price, and that the wicked create their own cruel end, the ultimate purpose is not yet fulfilled; the problem of subjugation in the world is not yet solved.
At the conclusion of this difficult and torturous educational process, we are promised that the lesson will indeed be learned: “God will smite Egypt; He will smite and then heal; they will return to God, and He will answer them and heal them.” (Yishayahu chapter 19)