Ariel Vardiger
Montreal Kollel 2006

Our parashah continues to describe Bnei Yisra’el’s enslavement in Egypt. The record of our nation’s bondage in Egyptis quite heartbreaking. Bnei Yisra’el is oppressed and persecuted, forced into servitude slaving with bricks and mortar, and moreover their sons are cast in the Nile. It is only natural to question this horrific reality – what is the cause of this tremendous suffering? Why were our ancestors to endure such torture and affliction?

The first source that hints at the slavery in Egypt takes us back to the “Berit bein ha-B’tarim” – “The Covenant between the Parts” – where God informs Avraham: “Your seed will be a foreigner in a land that is not theirs, and they will serve (the native people), and (this people) will afflict them for four-hundred years” (Bereshit 15:13). While this serves as the historical source for the ensuing slavery, no reason or grounds are given for this future event. It is still unclear what our forefathers had done to merit this terrible persecution. Our Sages have dealt with this issue throughout the ages – we will consider a select few of the reasons offered.

The Gemara (Nedarim 32a) states: “Rabi Avahu said in the name of Rabi El’azar: ‘Why was Avraham our Forefather punished and (why were) his descendants enslaved to the Egyptians for two-hundred and ten years?’ …Shemu’el said: ‘For he questioned God’s attributes, as it states, “How will I know that I will inherit (the land)?”(Bereshit 15:8).’” Thus, Shemu’el understands that Avraham was punished for lacking faith in God’s promise at the “Berit bein ha-B’tarim” that his descendants would merit the Landof Israel. Rabi Yochanan offers another explanation, “He prevented people from entering under the ‘Wings of God’s Presence,’ as it states: ‘the king of Sedom said to Avram, “Give me the souls, and you take the possessions” (ibid. 14:21).’” Avraham should have rather insisted on taking the captives under his charge in order to convert them.

In his commentary to the Torah (ibid. 12:10), the Ramban comments on Avraham and Sarah’s traveling to Egyptin order to avoid the famine in Canaan. The Ramban writes, “Avraham made a grave sin by placing his saintly wife in the danger of transgression as a result of his fear that they might kill him. He ought to place his trust in God saving him, his wife, and all that he had, for God has the power to assist and offer salvation. Furthermore, he sinned in leaving the land about which he had been commanded, for God would save him from death by famine. It is for this deed that the exile in the Landof Egyptat the hand of Pharaoh was decreed upon his descendants.”

These three justifications for the Egyptian enslavement seek to clarify the guilt of our forefathers’ that motivated this punishment, yet these explanations are quite problematic in and of themselves. Firstly, we are told that it is the behaviour of Avraham that leads to the punishment of his seed. Not only does this seem quite immoral and unethical, it also stands in direct contradiction to the fundamental directive that “Fathers shall not be put to death (for the sins of) their children, and neither children (for the sins) of their fathers; each man shall be executed for his (own) sins” (Devarim 24:26). Notwithstanding this fact, the disparity between the “sins” and their due retribution is tremendous. Once again, the morality of such a severe punishment so disproportionate to the original sins is disturbing.

In his introduction to his commentary to the Torah, the Seforno writes the following: “And it records in the second book (Shemot) that from the moment that the seed of Yisra’el began to violate the covenant of their fathers while in Egypt, as Yechezkel notes: ‘And they rebelled against Me, they desired not to heed Me, each man did not cast aside the abominations of their eyes; neither did they forsake the idols of Egypt. Then I said, “I will pour out my fury against them amidst the Landof Egypt”’ (Yechezkel 20:8). (Thus) they were enslaved with hard labour until a number of them returned from their abominations and prayed, and then ‘and angel of (God’s) face saved them’ (Yeshayahu 63:9).”

Tanach “Da’at Mikrah” adopts the Seforno’s interpretation adding, “I would say that the lengthy exile came upon Bnei Yisra’el after they themselves desired to continue dwelling in Egypt. When the famine ceased they did not return to the Land of Canaan which was destined to them in the Covenant, rather they made the region of Goshen their permanent abode, as it states: ‘And they acquired property there’ (Bereshit 47:27)” (Bereshit 1, pg 427).

The Seforno and the Da’at Mikrah base their explanation of Bnei Yisra’el’s servitude in Egypton the prophecy of Yechezkel, which relates to this period, nine-hundred years previously. Indeed as soon as the famine had ceased God had called Bnei Yisra’el to return to their land. Yet Bnei Yisra’el cleaved to the Landof Egyptand even assimilated into Egyptian culture. Now we may understand our forefathers’ bitter slavery in Egyptnot as punishment for a sin from antiquity, but rather as a direct result of their behaviour in Egypt. May it be God’s will that through this understanding of the Egyptian exile – which strengthens the morality and just nature of God’s actions – we merit to dwell in the land of sanctity and purity.