Going Down to Egypt: Passover celebrates G-d’s taking the Israelites out of slavery from Egypt and bringing them to the Promised Land. But what were the Israelites doing in Egypt in the first place, and how did they get there? The children of Israel’s trek down to Egypt actually begins with their forefather, Abraham. Abraham was the first person to acknowledge a purely monotheistic G-d. As a consequence, G-d promises to make his descendants into a great nation. The making of a great nation, like the making of anything great, is a complex process. So G-d tells Abraham that in order to become one united nation, his children must experience common suffering that is to include exile, enslavement and persecution in a land that is not theirs. Only then will they come into their inheritance–the land of Canaan (Genesis 15:13).
Three generations later, the descent to Egypt begins with Joseph. Life is often an intricate weave of seemingly negative experiences that in hindsight end up being the perfect solution. When Joseph’s brothers sold him to a band of Ishmaelites who took him to Egypt as a slave, they certainly could not have foreseen that two decades later he would be the Egyptian Viceroy who would save all of Egypt and his own family from starvation. Once all the brothers were reunited, with five more years of famine still ahead of them, Joseph brought his father and the rest of the children of Israel to Egypt (a total of 70 souls) and resettled them in Egypt in the land of Goshen. Slavery: In Egypt, Joseph was widely acknowledged as the people’s savior.
After Joseph’s death, however, the Bible reports that a new Pharaoh came to power who “did not know Joseph.” Rather, it implies that Pharaoh chose not to acknowledge Joseph’s contributions to Egypt’s survival. He and his advisors set out to destroy the Jews, who were flourishing in the land of Goshen. They protested that the Jews were growing far too numerous and that, should there be a war, the Jews would be a fifth column, fighting against them from within.
How does one go about enslaving an entire nation with subtlety? Pharaoh called for a “National Unity Program” in which everyone was to volunteer to help build the new store cities of Pithom and Ramses . At the beginning of the program, everyone came. Later on,however, only the Israelites came, perhaps to demonstrate how loyal they were to Pharoah. Over time, the one-time volunteers became forced laborers, and Pharaoh demanded of them the same yield that they had produced previously. Thus they were enslaved.
The Israelites lived in Egypt for 210 years, serving for many of those years as slaves. The Egyptians were harsh taskmasters, who relished in being cruel to the Israelites. Beyond the physical labor, the Israelites suffered moral degradation…men were forced to do the work usually done by women, and women were forced to do the work of men. Pharaoh’s astrologers predicted that the Israelites would be saved by a Hebrew boy yet to be born. Pharaoh could not allow this to occur. First he ordered the midwives that when an Israelite woman gives birth, “if it is a boy, you shall kill him, but if it is a girl, she may live” (Exodus 1:16). But the midwives refused to kill the children and told Pharaoh that the Jewish women gave birth without assistance. Pharaoh, however, then took the matter into his own hands and declared to his people: “Every boy that is born, you shall cast into the Nile, but every girl you shall keep alive” (Exodus 1:22).
The Israelite slaves were often forced to stay in the fields, separated from their families, but the women refused to allow their families to be torn asunder. Despite the Egyptian efforts to destroy them, the Jewish people continued to grow. Into this desperate situation, Moses was born. Moses’ parents, Amram and Yocheved were both from the tribe of Levi. Before the decree to murder the male children, they already had two children, Aaron and Miriam. After the decree to drown every male child was issued, Yocheved put the babe Moses in a basket covered with pitch and set the basket in the Nile.
Miriam followed her baby brother as the current carried him toward the bathing pool of Pharaoh’s daughter. When Pharaoh’s daughter saw that the basket contained a baby boy, she knew that it was a Jewish child, but nevertheless decided to keep him and raise him as her own child. Miriam immediately hurried forth to volunteer Yocheved as a nursemaid for the baby. Thus until he was weened, Moses was raised by a Jewish nursemaid, who was really his mother, before returning to Pharaoh’s daughter.
Moses was a full member of the Egyptian court and was regarded by Pharaoh as a grandson. But Moses was also sensitive to the injustices that were being done to his brethren, the Jews. One day, Moses witnessed an Egyptian taskmaster mercilessly beating a Jew. He saw that there was no one about, and killed the taskmaster in order to save the Israelite’s life. Quickly, before there were any witnesses, he buried the body in the sand. The very next day, however, when he came upon two Jews arguing and tried to stop them, they threatened Moses by saying, "Do you wish to kill us as you killed the Egyptian?"
Realizing that even if these two Israelite slaves knew of his actions, then so did Pharaoh. Moses fled Egypt to Midian where he met Tzippora, the daughter of Jethro (a former high priest of Midian who had turned to monotheism). After marrying Tzippora, Moses became one of Jethro’s shepherds and lived a pastoral and peaceful life…but not for long.
One day, while shepherding the flocks, Moses followed a stray lamb and came upon a bush surrounded by flames, yet the bush was not consumed by the fire. At the burning bush (which was located on Mount Sinai), G-d first spoke to Moses and instructed him to return to Egypt and lead the Israelites out of slavery. Moses, however, did not believe that he was the right person for the task…after all, he had a speech impediment, and he had an older brother who was perhaps more appropriate for the job. But G-d had chosen Moses, and so Moses went back to Egypt where his older brother Aaron served as his spokesman.
Redemption From Slavery: Taking the Jews out of Egypt was no easy task. G-d warned Moses that Pharaoh’s heart would be hardened. In fact, after Moses and Aaron’s first visit to Pharaoh’s palace, Pharaoh ordered an increase in the workload of his slaves. The slaves would now be responsible for supplying their own straw for the manufacture of bricks. The Israelites groaned under the weight of their oppression and accused Moses and Aaron of making things worse. But G-d strengthened Moses, and told him that now he would soon see the strength of G-d, which would result in Pharaoh’s freeing the Hebrews.
Now that Pharaoh had hardened his heart and refused to let the Israelites go, G-d could bring down his wrath upon Egypt. While it is true that G-d had told Abraham that his descendants would serve another people, and the Egyptians were therefore only fulfilling G-d’s command, they had gotten carried away with their divine role.
When Moses and Aharon next went to the palace to request freedom for their brethren and were refused, G-d turned the Nile River into blood. Each of the subsequent nine plagues followed the pattern: Moses and Aharon requested permission to leave, Pharaoh refused, Egypt and the Egyptians were smitten with a plague, while the Israelites were spared. The Egyptians would then cry out, and Pharaoh would beg for mercy and agree to let the Israelites go. Then Pharaoh would change his mind, and the next cycle would begin.
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