Egyptian Exile: The Prototype for Later Exiles
The Torah does not describe for us in any form whatsoever as to what
happened to the family of Yaakov - who are now the people of Israel, and
suddenly very numerous and at one time very influential and comfortable in
Egyptian society - in the years between the death of Yosef and the
enslavement of the Jews many decades later.
The Torah is not here to give us a narrative of interesting historical facts
and, as it did in the book of Bereshith, it skips over decades and even
centuries without giving us any in-depth description. But Midrash does
attempt to somehow fill that void and portrays for us on one hand a people
who attempted to remain separate and unique from the Egyptian majority
culture by its dress, language and historical memory and yet on the other
hand succumbed to adopting Egyptian gods and beliefs.
The Egyptian exile was the prototype for all later exiles. It posed the
challenge of how to remain steadfastly Jewish while living under foreign
rule and enmeshed in a foreign, even alien, culture and belief system. This
has remained the major challenge of Jewish existence throughout the ages.
This challenge accounts for the relative paucity of the number of Jews in
the world and for the continuing pressures – anti-Semitic and otherwise –
that constantly threaten to erode Jewish identity and even existence.
Every place of Jewish exile in the Diaspora has faced this challenge. Some
localities have fared better than others in coping with it. Though the
challenge has remained constant, the responses to it have varied from place
to place. Apparently what may have worked successfully for one society and
time may not be the correct solution for another.
It is important to note that the redemption from Egyptian exile was
facilitated by Heaven through unlikely means and by a surprising champion of
Israel’s cause. The likely choice for becoming the redeemer of Israel from
Egyptian bondage was certainly Aharon. He was present with the Jews during
the darkest years of persecution and was recognized by the people as its
leading personality. He led the tribe of Levi, the tribe of scholars of
Yaakov’s Torah and the bearers and teachers of his tradition.
His brother Moshe, who disappears from the scene of Jewish suffering in
Egypt for approximately sixty years, was raised in the palace of the hated
Pharaoh and does not appear to be especially articulate in speech. As a
shepherd, he engages in an occupation reviled by the dominant Egyptian
society and culture. Yet it is Moshe who is the redeemer, the lawgiver, and
the greatest of all prophets that the world will ever know.
It is Moshe who will teach Israel the Torah, which alone will be the
necessary guarantee for Jewish survival and growth in all of the societies
in which it will find itself to be part of. God’s guidance and protection of
Israel lies in providing the Jewish people with proper, even if unlikely,
leadership to meet the challenges constantly imposed on a small people by
varying times and place.
Rabbi Berel Wein