Parsha Shemot bridges the lives of the Patriarchs and those of their descendents, the Children of Israel. More importantly, it describes the fulfilment of God’s ominous promise to Abraham: “Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; and also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterward shall they come out with great substance”. It is set at a time approximately 210 years after Jacob and his family had taken refuge and then settled in Egypt.
The Torah recounts that the Children of Israel had enjoyed prosperity in their sanctuary of Goshen. However, their good fortune attracted the envy of their neighbours and fostered fear and suspicion. Whereas, the Egyptians had originally welcomed the Israelite settlers with open arms, subsequent generations were seen as a traitorous fifth column. The Egyptians began to persecute them, and eventually, the children of Israel became slaves to the Pharaoh. Abraham’s descendents had become strangers in a strange land.
While the scenario seems to share some of the standard themes of anti-Semitism, and indeed it is viewed by many commentators as the seminal event in the long and painful history of Jew hate, it more accurately a common episode of xenophobia, not unusual in a country that had suffered invasion and had thus developed a distrust of non-natives. Most importantly, it was a necessary step in the narrative arc that begins with the Egyptian Exile and ends with the Redemption of the Children of Israel by the hand of God. Simply, just as God had directed the sale of Joseph into slavery, and his eventual elevation from a prison cell to the ruling hierarchy of Egypt, God had machinated the descent of the Children of Israel into exile, their subsequent oppression and servitude, so that He too would engineer both the punishment of the Egyptian oppressors and the liberation of His people. It is fair to say that these predicaments and their results are only a means to a specific and a determined ending.
The Torah itself offers up no explanation for the Egyptian Exile, nor does it disclose the reason that the Children of Israel were subject to such a distressing fate. Traditional commentators have suggested that the Israelites behaviour brought about the punishment. Some have suggested that the original sin was the sale by the sons of Jacob of their brother Joseph into slavery. Others have opined that it was the behaviour of the Israelites that lay at the root. Once they had settled in the landof Goshen, the Children of Israel had grown comfortable and complacent and had forgotten the ways of their fathers. This viewpoint picks up on a comment recorded in the Book of Ezekiel: “But they rebelled against Me, and would not hearken unto Me; they did not every man cast away the detestable things of their eyes, neither did they forsake the idols of Egypt; then I said I would pour out My fury upon them, to spend My anger upon them in the midst of the land of Egypt.”
A more cogent reason is suggested, albeit indirectly, by the words that God spoke to Moses at the outset of his mission to lead the Children of Israel out of Egypt: “ And I know that the king of Egypt will not give you leave to go, except by a mighty hand. And I will put forth my hand, and smite Egypt with all my wonders which I will do in the midst thereof. And after that he will let you go.” It may be argued that the plight of the Israelites was a necessary prelude to the great set piece battle that would be waged, or more accurately staged, between Pharaoh and God for supremacy; a confrontation which will end with the public defeat and humiliation of Egyptian ruler, and the Children of Israel marching to freedom with the spoils of Egypt on their shoulders. The years of oppression and servitude were a difficult and a challenging episode, but necessary to publicly demonstrate to the world at large, not only the power of God, but most importantly, that the Children of Israel were the people that had been chosen by and protected by God.