The Exile of Egypt
Why did the Children of Israel descend specifically into Egypt, rather than another country?
Our Sages reply that the goal of the exile and slavery of Egypt was to rectify the sparks of holiness, blemished by Adam, through the bread of misery (an allusion to the holy sparks) that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt (Ohr HaChaim, Genesis 49:9). Nevertheless, the question still remains.
As we know, the yetzer hara, or evil inclination, carries the name tzar (oppressor), a word formed by the two first letters of its name Tzefuni Rah (“which hides evil in itself” – Sukkah 52a). It is an enemy that bears down on a person and makes him anxious, preventing him from being at peace and carrying out G-d’s precepts. It constantly puts him to the test in order to weaken and dissuade him from performing mitzvot that, according to it, are not appropriate for him. The evil inclination also pushes an individual to conform to G-d’s precepts for reasons of pride or other self-serving purposes.
Nevertheless, the yetzer tov (good inclination) also carries the name tzar, in the sense that it does not give a person time to think for long before performing a good deed when the opportunity arises. It annuls his doubts and incites him to immediate action, as our Sages have said: “If a chance [to fulfill a mitzvah] presents itself to you, do it immediately” (Rashi on Exodus 12:17), “If not now, when?” (Perkei Avoth 1:14) and, “Do not say, ‘When I will have free time I will study’ ” (ibid. 2:4). The good inclination prevents a person from changing his mind and being influenced by his evil inclination, or from forgetting the mitzvah that he must perform.
A person benefits from exercising his free will. He can either follow the good inclination (which gives a person bliss in the performance of the mitzvot) or he can follow the evil inclination, which is born with him, as it is written: “The inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21) – “when he leaves his mother’s womb” (Bereshith Rabba 34:10). The evil inclination is never idle, but “dwells between the two entrances of the heart” (Berachot 61a). It weakens a person to such an extent that he does not rush to perform good deeds, or he no longer thinks of them.
Our ancestors in fact waged a brutal war against the forces of evil and seriously weakened them. Without their help in rectifying the sparks of holiness and removing the kelipot (“husks” – the forces of evil that envelop holiness), Jews would not have been able to do anything. Our ancestors endured the worst hardships in order to serve G-d in joy. To rectify the sparks of holiness that were scattered following Adam’s sin, the Children of Israel had to descend from their level by being exiled in Egypt for 210 years (the numerical value of redu [“descend”]), whereas our Patriarchs worked toward this goal at lofty spiritual levels. Actually, only Jacob had to descend into Egypt, as it is written: “I shall descend with you to Egypt, and I shall also surely bring you up” (Genesis 46:4). The Children of Israel would thus learn from Jacob to rectify the sparks of holiness when they would be in full spiritual regression, for they would know that their spiritual fall had but one goal, and that it would lead to a full spiritual ascension.
The kelipot thus had no power over our ancestors, for the evil inclination was, as we know, under their control. Our ancestors ardently yearned to cure souls and rectify the sparks of holiness, which is why they descended into Egypt, the world center of immorality (Shemot Rabba 1:18, see Genesis 42:9). It was precisely there that the sparks of holiness were located, sparks from which the kelipot nourished themselves.
Hashem did not mention the location of the Children of Israel’s exile to Abraham. He simply told him, “Your offspring shall be aliens in a land not their own” (Genesis 15:13). He also did not mention this to Isaac or Jacob, for the kelipot did not yet rage in Egypt at that time. It was only when the righteous Joseph, the foundation of the world (Zohar I:59b), descended into exile in Egypt (eventually becoming its ruler) that Hashem revealed to Jacob that Egypt was where the Children of Israel would settle, be fruitful, and greatly increase in number (Genesis 47:27). Jacob also descended into Egypt, as it written: “They came to Egypt – Jacob and all his offspring with him” (ibid. 46:6), and there they remained for 210 years.
Consequently, our ancestors waged a bitter and agonizing fight against the forces of evil, all while revering Hashem. They ended up driving away the kelipot, which could no longer derive anything from them. Although Abraham (Genesis 12:10) and Isaac (ibid. 26:1-2) left Eretz Israel, it was only for a short time in Abraham’s case. As for Isaac, the “sacrifice without blemish,” he never trod upon the land of Egypt (Bereshith Rabba 64:3). Nevertheless, since they could not rectify the sparks of holiness while they were living in Israel, Jacob and all the Children of Israel had to descend into Egypt.
The word Mitzraim (“Egypt”) alludes to metzarim (“narrow paths”). Whoever descended there experienced the feeling of being constricted and fell into the grip of the kelipot and evil inclination, which constricts man and prevents him from serving G-d. The kelipah was bloodthirsty (the first two letters of Mitzraim form the word Tzameh, “thirsty”). The last letters of Mitzraim form the world Tzarim (“oppressors”), for it was there that the Children of Israel were oppressed. This is why Jacob sent Judah “ahead of him to Joseph” (Genesis 46:28) to establish yeshivot in Goshen (see Bereshith Rabba 95:3), thus making the cure precede the illness. We have already seen that the Torah is the most powerful weapon available against the evil inclination (Kiddushin 30b). It is therefore not by accident that Joseph descended into Egypt, for his holiness enabled him to weaken the kelipot and prepare the way for the Children of Israel.
It is written, “Hurry – go up to my father and say to him, ‘…G-d samani [has named me] master of all Egypt’ ” (Genesis 45:9). A difficult question arises: What message did Jacob want to convey to his father? Did he want to tell him that he was enjoying the greatest honors (illusionary by nature) of Egypt? The author of Darchei Mussar cites the following explanation of Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin: “Do not read samani [‘has named me’], but sham ani [‘I am there’]. There in Egypt, I represent G-d. I instill all the Egyptians with faith in G-d: Only the Holy One, blessed be He, is Master.”
We therefore see just how our ancestors sapped the forces of evil in order to help the Children of Israel rectify the blemish that Adam’s sin created in the sparks of holiness. This allows us to conclude that we must never lose home, but instead we must constantly cling to the performance of mitzvot in order for G-d to help us in our fight against the evil inclination and the kelipot.
Our Sages have already taught us that the Children of Israel remembered their Jewishness only after they experienced suffering. Before that, they frequented theaters, circuses, and other places of Egyptian amusement. (Yalkut Shimoni, Exodus 1). The Egyptians “became disgusted because of the Children of Israel” (Exodus 1:12), for they found them wherever they went. They complained about them to Pharaoh, and so the Children of Israel began to suffer. They then repented and started to perform a certain number of mitzvot, as at Marah for example (Sanhedrin 56b). The Holy One, blessed be He, finished by liberating them from Egyptian slavery, particularly because of three mitzvot that they succeeded in observing.
We may ask ourselves why the Egyptians complained to Pharaoh about the Jews. Were the Egyptians not happy to see Jews mingling among them and inspired by their customs? The reason the Egyptians complained was because in the past both they and the forces of evil could draw sustenance from the holiness within Jews. However now that a new generation of Jews arose, one that was far from Torah and holiness, the Egyptians could no longer benefit from them and thus began to complain about them to Pharaoh.
It is exactly in this way that the evil inclination acts. It first makes a person suffer and leads him in becoming wicked, and then it complains about him in Heaven and demands that he be punished for his sins: “The evil inclination entices man in this world and testifies against him in the World to Come” (Sukkah 52b). Furthermore, it “comes down to earth and seduces, then ascends to heaven and awakens wrath…and takes away the soul” (Bava Batra 16a). The complaints of the Egyptians, however, had positive consequences. Tormented from every angle, the Children of Israel repented and began to watch their conduct, particularly in the domain of sexuality (since the Egyptians claimed that the Children of Israel resembled them). It is the same for everyone. As our Sages taught, if a man is overwhelmed with suffering, he must examine his conduct and eliminate his wicked tendencies (Berachot 5a).
In His great mercy, Hashem afflicts a man with suffering in order to awaken him from his spiritual slumber (Tanna D’vei Eliyahu Rabba 13), giving him time to repent (Mechilta, Pesikta Zutah Beshalach 15:6).