Three Reasons We Were Slaves in Egypt

Ask author
March 02 2021

Many nations begin with wars, infighting and challenges between themselves and those people around them. But why did Hashem decree that the Jewish people should begin its role in history as slaves? Wasn’t there a better method that God could have chosen to start the Am HaNivchar, the Chosen People of world history, who one day would be receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai and fulfill the mitzvot therein? 

Our sages describe three reasons we needed to begin our role on the world stage with a 210-year sojourn in Mitzrayim, many years of which we were slaves to Pharaoh and Egypt. 

1. To strengthen the Jews’ trust in God. 

2. To develop a close relationship with God. 

3. To show the Jews the consequences of an over-zealous pursuit of materialism. 

The Torah in Bereishit (15:7-8) describes how Avraham was told that his descendants would be slaves in Egypt:

וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי ה' אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים לָתֶת לְךָ אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת לְרִשְׁתָּהּ. וַיֹּאמַר ה' אֱלוקִם בַּמָּה אֵדַע כִּי אִירָשֶׁנָּה.

He said to him [Avraham]: “I am God Who brought you out of Ur Kasdim to give you this land to inherit it.” He said, “My Lord, how will I know that I will inherit it?” 

The Gemara in Nedarim (32a) explains that Avraham’s question had in it a lack of emunah that would somehow remain with his descendants, and which required the Egyptian exile to help remove it from their souls. 

אמר רבי אבהו אמר רבי אלעזר מפני מה נענש אברהם אבינו ונשתעבדו בניו למצרים מאתים ועשר שנים ... שמואל אמר מפני שהפריז על מדותיו של הקדוש ברוך הוא שנאמר במה אדע כי אירשנה

Rabbi Abahu said in the name of Rabbi Eliezer, “Why was Avraham punished by having his descendants enslaved for 210 years in Egypt?” Shmuel answered, “Because Avraham doubted God’s [credibility in fulfilling His promise – Rashi]. This is reflected in the verse: ‘How will I know that I will inherit the Land?’” 

Egypt was, as the Torah (Devarim 4:2) describes, a kur habarzel, an iron crucible, which has the power, explains Rashi, to purify gold and remove all dross that is found in it. So too, the Jewish people are like gold that needed a fiery cleansing to prepare them to receive the Torah. As Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg explains in HaKtav V’HaKabbalah, God’s true purpose behind the Egyptian slavery was to purify the Jewish people [of their baser characteristics], just as gold is purified in a crucible. He wanted to remove the base metals so that only pure gold would remain. To this end, many of those Jews who were unworthy died in the plague of darkness, and only those who remained were chosen to receive the Torah.

How would being a slave help purify us? What does being a slave and then being redeemed by God do for our emunah and the emunah of future generations? The Sfat Emet, Shemot, Parshat Va’eira, 5634, explains that the purpose of the Exodus from Egypt was that we should know that God brought us out from there:

כי כשאדם שוכח ומתגאה לומר כחי ועוצם ידי כו' אז צריכין להביאו במיצא ושיראה כי הכל מה' יתברך ויציאת מצרים היה הכנה לדורות.

For when a person forgets this and grows proud, saying, “My strength and abilities created all this success for me” (Devarim 8:17) he must be brought to a state of helplessness to show him that everything is from God.” The entire exile was a preparation for future generations.

Sometimes you have to go to the lowest low before you can reach and appreciate the highest high, explains, Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, Michtav M’Eliyahu, Vol. I, p. 158:

וכן בכל פעם שהיה צורך לתת אפשרות לצדיק להתעלות במדרגה גדולה עליונה מאד, נזרק הצדיק אל סביבת השפלים היותר גרועים למען ילמד מהם את פחיתות הרע ויתאמץ בטוב עד מרום קצו.

Every time there is a need to give a righteous person the possibility of rising to a very high level, he is thrown into the worst environment so that he should learn that evil is futile, and thus strive to reach the highest limits.

Similarly, when Israel needed to prepare to accept the Torah, God did not send them to the Heavenly Yeshivah from where Moshe took the Torah, but the opposite: He sent them into bondage in Egypt, to be slaves to people who had sunk to the forty-ninth level of impurity, which is the most depraved and Godless level of physical existence. 

This slavery brought the Jews to a state where “they cried out to God (to return to Him)” (Shemot 2:23). This teshuva, a return to God, which began at the polar extreme of physical enslavement and frustration, was the cause of their astonishing ascent to the spiritual level of receiving the Torah, which is comparable to the forty-ninth level of spiritual purity. 

The third reason for the slavery comes from the Ba’alei HaTosfot (Tosfot Shalem, Shemot, Va’eira, p. 22). The purpose of slavery was to remove from the souls of the Jewish people any extreme desire for money and material success. At the outset, the Jews were offered payment for every brick they made, and because of their desire for money they made more than necessary. After this, the Egyptians forced them to continue making bricks at the same rate as when they were being paid. This experience would remain with the Jewish people for generations to come. Whenever we become hyper focused on material success and make that our raison d’etre, we remind ourselves of the futility of pursuing money for its own sake, and instead realize that only spiritual goals last into the next world. 

In conclusion, Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, Michtav M’Eliyahu, Vol. II, pp. 17–18, reminds us that everything that occurs to the Jewish people has an inner aspect to it. The exile in Egypt appears to a normal person as a physical slavery. But a spiritually-oriented person sees that it was a slavery of the soul, and that this was the real cause for physical slavery. In short, we were slaves to the yetzer harah, the evil inclination. 

The Torah calls Egypt “Mitzrayim,” from the root meitzar, which means “constriction” and “distress.” It also signifies a boundary. The title of Egyptian kings — Pharaoh in Hebrew — is also significant. Its root meaning is “to lay open or untie,” implying that the goal of Egyptian impurity was to break down the defenses of our personality and lay it wide open to the inroads of the yetzer harah.

May this Pesach allow us as individuals and as a nation to build our emunah and free ourselves from all the parts of our personality that are keeping us in a slave mentality. In the merit of this, may we bring the final redemption of Mashiach and return to our rightful homeland Israel with the third and final Beit Hamikdash. Amen. 


    More from this:
    Leave a Comment

    Learning on the Marcos and Adina Katz YUTorah site is sponsored today by Dr. Barry and Marcia Levinson in honor of their children and grandchildren and by Solomon Monderer for a refuah shleimah for Leora bat Rifka and by Roslyn and Toby Feinerman to mark the yahrtzeit of David Mintz, Dovid ben Mordechai, on first day of Sukkot