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A Broad Synopsis of the Jewish People

The holiday of Pesach revolves around the epic tale of the Children of Israel: Their initial migration to the Land of Egypt; their plunge into the abyss of abject slavery and torture; the miracles and plagues that decimated Egypt in order to release them from bondage; the eventual and glorious exodus; the splitting of the sea which sealed the fate of the Egyptians and saved the Jewish People; and finally, the spectacle of accepting the Torah on Har Sinai. We study it over and over and impart the ideology to our children, year after year. But do we truly understand the purpose of it all? Can we unequivocally answer the most important question of all: What did the Jewish People do that they were forced to undergo the terrible exile, the Golus Mitzrayim, including the Avodas Perach, loss of their children, hundreds of years of slavery and torture? Why was it their fault?

The most basic explanation is that it was a Divine decree that the Almighty delivered many years earlier to Avraham Avinu, when He said: “Know, that your offspring will be strangers in a land not their own; they will enslave them and oppress them for four hundred years.” (Bereshis 15-13) However, we do find that commentators attribute the punishment of exile to other seemingly “minor” infractions on the part of Avraham. 1. Making use of Torah scholars, including Eliezer, to fight the battle against the five kings who had kidnapped his nephew Lot. 2. Asking Hashem, “How will I know that I will inherit it (Eretz Canaan)” (15-8) for the Jewish People. 3. Going down to Egypt during a period of famine for food and not thinking to rely solely on G-d to provide for him. 4. Telling his wife Sara to tell the Egyptians that she was his sister, not his wife. 5. Telling the King of Sodom that he refuses to accept even “from a thread to a shoelace” (14-23) of payment and reward – which included the slaves the King offered, as opposed to accepting and converting them to Monotheism. But still, the question begs itself to be asked: Why should these minor sins cause Avraham’s grandchildren to go through the hardships of Golus Mitzrayim? They were his sins not his grandchildren’s?

The answer is that Avraham’s infractions were not the cause of the Egyptian Exile. It wouldn’t be fair to punish Avraham’s descendants for their forefather’s minor infractions. It was simply an excuse to inform Avraham of the prophecy of future exile. So, why then were the Children of Israel punished?

There is one more thing that the Almighty promised Avraham: That, at the end of the period of bondage, his children will leave Egypt with a “Rechush Gadol.” (Wealth of Possessions) What is this Rechush Gadol? Much gold and silver? Precious stones and valuable jewels? In that case, it should have said, “Rechush Rav.” The word “Gadol” implies something unique, something special. And what was this special “Rechush” that Hashem had in mind? It was none other than the holy Torah, the pinnacle of perfection, the blueprint of the entire universe. But this is not such a simple thing. Hashem chose to give the Jewish People the Torah. Who says they will want it? There are many restrictions in the Torah that the Jews were not used to – Shabbos, Kashrus, Tznius, etc. – and they may feel burdened by all of them. For this they needed to leave Egypt? Besides, there were many Jews in the Land of Egypt who did not have to endure harsh slavery, this Avodos Perach. Shevet Levi, for example, was exempt from work, and some claim that the Jews from Ephraim and Menashe also did not have this problem; as the direct descendants of Yosef, the former viceroy of Egypt, they were highly respected in Egypt. In fact, there were many Jews who lived the “good life” in Egypt – so much so – that Chazal tell us that four-fifths of Bnei Yisroel died during Makas Choshech – the Plague of Darkness. These Jews had no interest in leaving Egypt and Hashem eradicated them in advance of the great Exodus. And to top it off, the Sages tell us that the people worshiped Avoda Zara – most idol worshipers of that day were in Egypt – and this included the Jews, as well. If so, how was Hashem supposed to wean them off the idols and their sinful mindset, in order to make them want to receive the Torah?

G-d had a plan. He employed the pains of Egypt, the terrible servitude and subjugation, so the Nation would do anything to leave Egypt – even accept the Torah! He sent forth the Ten Plagues to display once and for all that He alone was in charge. He – and not the idols! And the Jewish People believed in Him and followed Him into the desert with all the fanfare as described in the Torah. And then, it was time to fulfill the purpose of the mission – to receive the coveted “Rechush Gadol.” On Mount Sinai, amidst flashes of brilliant lightning and awesome thunder, Hashem delivered the Ten Commandments to Moshe Rabbeinu, and the People responded with the immortal words: “Naaseh V’Nishma” – “We will do and we will hear.” They received the Torah and pledged to follow its directives to the letter of the law. This, then, was the entire purpose of Golus Mitzrayim: The people needed a reason to want to leave Egypt in order to accept the Torah and fulfill it.

Historically, we know that although the Jews did accept the Torah and ascended – at that time – to the highest level of spirituality when doing so, their acceptance was still deemed a form of “coercion.” As the Talmud tells us (Shabbos 88a), Hashem held the mountain over the heads of the people and threatened that if they do not accept the Torah, “right there would be their burial site.” The Jewish People really had little choice but to accept the Torah, whether they wanted to or not! After all, they had not known about the 613 mitzvos that is contained therein and to a certain degree they were apprehensive. It’s no wonder they needed to be “forced” to accept the Torah and the accompanying lifestyle that it dictated.

In fact, this level of “coercion” lasted with the Jewish Nation for almost one thousand years. Even when the first Bais Hamikdash was built, the Sages list the many, many miracles that occurred there on a daily basis. Why was this necessary? Because Hashem still had to impress, kavayachol, the Jews with His power and might. They did not fully believe on their own! True, it is difficult to fathom, but this is not subjective conjecture – it is documented fact! It was not until the time of Mordechai and Esther, and the incredible story of Purim, that the Talmud tells us: “Kiymu Mah Shekiblu Kvar” – “They re-accepted what they had already accepted once before.” What is the meaning of “Re-accepting?” It means that this time they accepted it with love, faith and a true will to serve Hashem. There was no coercion at this time; no one was forced to fulfill the Torah. They simply wanted to of their own volition. They finally accepted the Torah on their own initiative when they saw how Hashem loved them and saved them from the evil ploys of Haman HaRasha. As a result, when the second Bais Hamikdash was built, there were not any great miracles as in the first Bais Hamikdash because now, centuries later, Hashem did not feel the need to prove to the people that they must accept Him. He did not have to impress the Jews. They accepted Him willingly and followed His Torah loyally. And so today, we continue to accept Him willingly and loyally. That is the depth of Am Yisroel.

It is our fervent wish and prayer to the Almighty, that just as the Golus Mitzrayim produced a world-wide event of unprecedented proportion with the deliverance of the holy Torah on Mount Sinai, so too, the current Golus and long exile shall produce the event we have been hoping and waiting for for close to two thousand years; the revelation of the ultimate redeemer, Moshiach Tzidkaynu, speedily and in our days.

Rabbi Pinchos Hoffman

21 Teves 5770


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