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  Chapter 15 from
Templates For The Ages
Historical perspectives through the Torah's lenses

By Rabbi David Cohen 


Other Available Chapters
18 


Egypt - Roots of Israel's Suffering

The words of the Maariv (Evening) Prayer, “And He took His nation, Israel, out from among them, to eternal freedom,” are understood by the Vilna Gaon to mean that the deliverance from Egypt is the root of all future redemption. Likewise, all future oppression has its source in the Jewish bondage in Egypt.

Pharaoh, looking for a way to deal with the Jews, meets with his advisors, and asks them to come up with a plan. He states (Exodus 1:10): “Let us deal wisely with him, lest he multiply, and if a war should come, he will ally himself with our enemies, and fight against us, and depart from the land.” Rashi explains the final words, “and [he will] depart from the land,” to mean that Pharaoh was, in reality, cursing his own ill fortune, but in an indirect way. Pharaoh really meant: “and we shall be forced to depart from the land,” the logical culmination of the litany of misfortune he envisioned and described.

The Sforno, however, interprets the verse in an entirely different way. When Pharaoh said, “Let us deal with him wisely,” he meant in an indirect manner, through cunning and subterfuge. When Pharaoh said, “and he will depart from the land,” it was to say that the Jewish nation would leave on its own, without being forcibly ejected, and not for any specific reason. If war breaks out, continue Pharaoh’s musings, then all the things that set us apart from the Jews, such as differences in philosophy and outlook, will reach a point where “Egyptians would not be able to eat bread with the Hebrews” (Genesis 43:32), and the lines of demarcation will be clearly drawn. The fact that they are our enemies will become apparent, and their hatred will be revealed during the conflicts of war, at which point they will be legitimate targets for our swords.

The Ramban’s thoughts on this verse are similar to those of the Sforno. The Ramban explains that Pharaoh and his advisors did not think it wise to strike the Jews immediately with the sword, for it would be considered great treachery to strike, without provocation, the nation that had settled in the land at the behest of the previous Pharaoh. Indeed, the people of the land would never allow the king to do such an evil thing. Furthermore, the Israelites were a great and mighty nation, and would surely do battle with their would-be captors.

Pharaoh proposed, therefore, to deal with them wisely, in such a way that the Jews would not perceive the Egyptian’s underlying hatred. Thus, he dealt with them in stages. First, he levied a tax on them, for it was common practice for strangers in a country to pay a tax to the king, as we see in King Solomon’s time. Following that, he secretly commanded the midwives to kill all male babies at birth, in such a way that the mothers themselves would not be aware of the deed. Then Pharaoh decreed to the Egyptian people that “Every [Jewish] son that is born, into the Nile you shall throw him.” Pharaoh did not want his executioners to commit these atrocities, whether by sword or drowning; rather, he wanted the people to be involved. Once the king had loosened all constraints for his people, the Egyptians took matters into their own hands (ie. they would search houses, breaking in at night and taking out babies).

This pattern is evident throughout history, and is shown to us as recently as during the Holocaust. At first the Germans wanted to expel the Jews from their land, a parallel to the verse, “and he will depart from the land.” To this end, they even cooperated with the Zionists from 1933 until 1941. The Nazis, like Pharaoh, then began with anti-Jewish legislation, the Nuremberg Laws, and not outright murder. Then they enslaved and oppressed the Jews, until they reached the level of the infamous “Final Solution.”

There is another correlation between Egypt and Germany that is noteworthy.

The verse states (Exodus 11:5): “And every firstborn in Egypt died, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, sitting on his throne, to the firstborn of the slave girl behind the millstones, and the firstborn of every animal.” Rashi explains that foreign captives were stricken as well, so that they should not say that their god championed their cause and punished Egypt. Further in the chapter (ibid. 12:29), Rashi gives another reason -- even captives were punished because they rejoiced in the misfortune of the Jews.

The verse states (ibid. 12:12): “And I passed through the land of Egypt on this night, and I struck every firstborn in the land of Egypt from man to animal.” Rashi observes that the plague struck even the firstborn of other nations who were visiting Egypt, as well as Egyptian firstborns who were visiting other countries. Even those of lowly birth were struck, because they too enslaved the Jews and rejoiced in their misfortunes.

Rashi, however, gives no reason why the plague struck the firstborn of foreign nations who were in Egypt. The obvious conclusion to be drawn is that these nations rejoiced in Israel’s misfortune as well, and for this, they were punished.

Rashi’s words on the reaction of other captives to the Jewish plight is enlightening. We would think that people in their position would feel sympathy for the Jews, for both suffered at the hand of the same captor nation. However, this was not the case. They, too, rejoiced; and, undoubtedly, other nations did as well.

The reaction of the world to the plight of the Jews in German clutches was often one of satisfaction, even among nations who also suffered at the hands of the Germans. This is a clear case of “maaseh avos siman lebanim,” the foreshadowing of our later fate at the dawn of Jewish nationhood, especially in light of the fact that the Egyptian exile was a forerunner of all exiles, and specifically, the present Edomite exile.1


1. See Ramban (Genesis 47:28) and Rabbeinu Bachya (Exodus 12:29).
 
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