Shaya Cohen -


Why Did We Need to be Slaves in Egypt?

It is common enough to ask, “why are there bad things in the world?” It is even more on the nose to ask: “Why does G-d cause bad things to happen in the world?” And make no mistake: being slaves in Egypt was no picnic. On top of the dehumanizing experience of institutionalized slavery, Pharoah tried to have all male children murdered at birth. How can we justify that?!

One way to answer this question can be found by looking closely at the text, specifically the mentions in the Torah after the Exodus: the times G-d explains or justifies a commandment with the reminder, “you were slaves in Egypt.” In this way, the Torah is specifically explaining that why we were slaves in Egypt connects to the nature of the commandment that is linked to us being slaves! We can thus understand why we had to be slaves, by seeing what we were supposed to learn from the experience.

Interestingly, there are 18 verses in the Torah that explicitly remind us that we were slaves in Egypt. They are each tied to at least one commandment! And if we look at only these verses, we can see a progression of ideas. They are as follows:

Gratitude to G-d: Basic gratitude is expressed through bringing the first fruits, acknowledging that the source of our prosperity is not from ourselves, but from G-d. (Deut. 26: 8-10). Beware lest we say, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.” (Deut. 8:17) We are commanded to always give credit where it is due. Because we were slaves in Egypt.

Empathy for slaves: Treat your slaves well, and free them with material goods, as G-d freed you. (Lev. 25:40, 54, Deut. 15:14) This is a direct and simple connection to being slaves ourselves.

Concern for the downtrodden: Be kind to those who are strangers, poor, orphans or widows, because you remember from being slaves in Egypt what it was like to be unwanted, powerless, unloved, and unprotected. (Deut. 16:12, 24:17, 21)

Reject all others: We read earlier in the Torah of Jacob’s family having idols. There is a sense that G-d does not demand an exclusive relationship until the Exodus, when G-d demands that we must not stray. It is why we must reject the gods of the peoples around us (Deut. 6:14) and the key elements of these pagan cultures (Ex. 13:3). The Exodus from slavery in Egypt advanced our connection to Hashem from us having a preferred familial or tribal G-d, to having an exclusive relationship with the Creator of the World.

Fidelity in Relationship: G-d freed us, and He expects – demands – a monogamous relationship. When one person helps another person out, then a bond is formed, one in which there is always a debt, a connection. We must never betray that relationship, or flirt with other gods. (Deut. 7:9, 6:14, 13:5-11) Betrayal in an intimate relationship is like having the bottom fall out of your world, and so we must never betray G-d.

But why is it so important to G-d that we have this relationship? Why is it so important that we both acknowledge Him, and refuse to follow other gods? This is not merely about obligation or payment for services, or even an enduring debt. I think the text is leading us to a much deeper and more challenging conclusion: G-d wants us to see things the way He sees things! If we can do that, then we can grow our relationship in multifaceted dimensions. This is what empathy allows us to do: if we can see things from the perspectives of others – even and especially G-d’s own perspective—then we have grown, grown far beyond mere cogitating animals.

Imitating G-d. Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, and then you can see things from their perspective. I think this is at the heart of the commandments linked to being slaves in Egypt that command us to emulate G-d Himself. This is why we are commanded to observe the Sabbath (Deut. 5:15) He wants His people to seek to copy him, to follow in His ways. If we seek to connect with Hashem, then we should seek to ACT like Hashem. And so we are to keep Shabbos, as He did.

Being slaves made us more lovable: Because we were slaves, “I will establish My abode in your midst, and I will not spurn you. I will be ever present in your midst: I will be your God, and you shall be My people.” (Lev. 26:13) G-d is showing empathy – and perhaps even a little guilt – for what we went through. The suffering seems to have given G-d an obligation toward us, just as surely as being freed from Egypt made us indebted to G-d.

We can now see the progression that the Torah is laying out for us: we had to be slaves in Egypt because we had to grow ourselves in a myriad of constructive ways, advancing beyond who we were in the first Book of the Torah. We had to learn to show gratitude, empathy for those less blessed, appreciation to G-d and exclusivity in that relationship. And then the Torah goes even beyond these high ideals, because G-d wants us to try to emulate Him, to try to see things from G-d’s perspective. To love each other as G-d loves us!

There are just two more verses with “because you were slaves in Egypt.”

We are told to remember the death of the first-born:

And when has brought you into the land of the Canaanites, as [God] swore to you and to your fathers, and has given it to you, you shall set apart for G-d every first issue of the womb: every male firstling that your cattle drop shall be G-d’s. But every firstling ass you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. And you must redeem every male first-born among your children. And when, in time to come, a child of yours asks you, saying, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall reply, ‘It was with a mighty hand that G-d brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage.

But what is the connection between the first-born and being in Egypt? Obviously it is because G-d killed all the first-born of Egypt. And He spared us.

But consider this: All who were killed in that plague were innocent victims. Pharaoh’s stubbornness was the only reason the plague came to pass, yet Pharaoh was spared from this plague!

So perhaps one of the reasons we are to always dedicate the first-born is because we are supposed to feel empathy for our enemies! We do not celebrate the death of enemies, and certainly not innocent children or animals. So perhaps this commandment is to teach us to empathize even with those who oppose us. Now that is a challenge!

And the last of the, “Because I took you out of slavery in Egypt” references make the entire argument in one example: The phrase is found in the prelude to (and justification for) the Ten Commandments. And they connect to all the points already made! In condensed form, we can summarize the justifications as follows:

Commandment Connection to Empathy
You shall have no other gods before me Exclusivity in relationship
You shall make no idols Understand what I am not: corporeal or a physical manifestation
Do not take my name in vain Don’t dishonor me using my own gift to you of speech
Keep the Sabbath day holy Walk in my shoes: imitatio dei
Honor your father and mother Try to see things from the perspective of our parents. Connected to the recognition that G-d is also a parent.
Do not murder The most basic form of empathy – seeing ourselves in others, and thus seeing value in all human life
Don’t commit adultery As with idolatry: don’t hurt the one who has invested the most in you
Don’t steal Their possessions are not yours. Again, empathy
Do not bear false witness See falsity from the perspective of the victim
Do not covet When you covet, you deny your own unique path, and you lose your individuality. Coveting is about not respecting others or yourself. Overcoming our shallow perceived self-interest is critical.

Putting it all together: the people were not ready to receive the Torah until they had experienced slavery in Egypt, the perspective that makes it possible for us to understand the point of view of other people, our enemies, and G-d Himself. Being in Egypt was a stage of growth that was necessary to enter into a permanent covenant with G-d.

[an @iwe, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter work]

P.S. Another (related) perspective: Sins are all rational behavior in the animal kingdom, where Might Makes Right. Perhaps we needed to be treated as mere animals to realize just how far away from the animal kingdom we need to grow. All of these commandments and connections can be seen as elements of anti-animalistic behavior.

Comments are welcome!

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