Friday, October 23, 2015

Parsha: Why Must Avraham’s Descendants be Slaves in Egypt? Three Approaches

Rav Yehuda Turetsky

The Torah (Breishit 15:13) records Hashem’s powerful words to Avraham. Hashem tells Avraham that while his future progeny will eventually settle in Israel, they will first be slaves in a foreign land (Breishit 15:13).  They will encounter servitude prior to settling in their ultimate destination.

Why must Avraham’s children be slaves? Why could they not settle in Israel without the initial stage of servitude?

What follows are three answers to this question.

1. Some maintain that Avraham’s descendants must be slaves because of some sin Avraham performed that required his descendants be punished. This is the view of several opinions cited in the Talmud (Nedarim 32a), in which some possible sins of Avraham are mentioned. Ramban (Breishit 12:10) agrees with this general orientation, though he suggests an original explanation regarding Avraham’s sin. He critiques Avraham for leaving Israel for Egypt during a famine.  Whereas many Mefarshim understand that Avraham was correct for leaving Israel, Ramban maintains that Avraham should have remained in Israel; he should have trusted in God that things would be fine in Israel.

[Ramban’s view connects to his understanding of the phrase Ma’aseh Avot Siman L’Banim. He references this concept numerous times in his commentary to Sefer Breishit. His view also relates to a larger discussion about critiquing Avot. An overview of Ma’aseh Avot Siman L’Banim, as well as the concept of critiquing Avot, is beyond the scope of this brief post].

2. Sefer Ma’asei Hashem (cited in Chumash Otzar Mefarshei HaPshat Breishit 15:) quotes a view he attributes to an anonymous and early view. He suggests the Jews were slaves in Egypt not because of sin but in order to accomplish a higher purpose: the importance of spreading Hashem’s name in this world and highlighting His critical role in all that occurs. What was most valuable was not the slavery, but the exit from Egypt; the manner in which we left Egypt helped spread the name of God. The miracles performed and witnessed made it clear to so many that God controls the world. 

3. Perhaps one could suggest a third view. The Brisker Rav (Chidushei HaGriz Al haTorah ad loc) suggests that God was not merely informing Avraham what would eventually occur to his children. It was not merely a prophecy. Instead, Hashem was establishing a condition (“tnai”) to the covenant between God and the Jewish people. Only if they would first be slaves in Egypt would they be able to settle in Israel.

The Brisker Rav’s idea highlights an important point, though one that is difficult to understand. The acquisition of Eretz Yisrael is always challenging; the Talmud (Brachot 5a) even teaches that Israel is one of three things only acquired through hardship.
Perhaps one could explain that it is the unique power and spiritual capacity of this land that demands a certain form of acquisition. Israel is such a special place that it cannot be acquired through conventional means. The initial struggle is critical for our being worthy and deserving of this special land.

May we merit a complete return to Israel!

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