Parashat Vayehi

Why Bondage?

An exploration of why the Children of Israel were destined to be slaves toPharaoh

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But this rationale fails to account for the brutality of the bondage. The sojourn could also have been painless. One midrash conveys the need for acts of redemption.

"Why were the Ten Commandments not stated at the beginning of the Torah? The answer came by way of analogy. A man came to a country and said: 'I am ready to rule over you.' Its citizens said: 'What have you done for us that you should rule over us?' What did he do? He built for them a wall, brought in water and waged wars for them. Again he said, 'I am ready to rule over you.' This time they responded, 'Absolutely.' In the same manner, God took Israel out of Egypt, split the sea for them, brought down manna, raised up a wall, provided them with quail, and defeated Amalek. Only then did God say, 'I am ready to rule over you,' to which they responded, 'Absolutely'" (Mekhilta d'R. Yishmael, Howoritz/Rabin ed., p. 219).

Covenant is Redemption

According to this Midrash, the context for covenant is redemption. Divine intervention in a situation of utter hopelessness created the sense of indebtedness which induced Israel to accept the Torah. God's compassion and power had readied Israel to obligate itself to the dictates of God's wisdom. The midrashic intent is to explain the preamble of the Ten Commandments: "I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage" (Exodus 20:2), which is the justification for the laws that follow. The claim on Israel's allegiance is historically grounded; without the Exodus there would have been no Sinai.

The third reason makes still better sense of the flow of the biblical narrative. Egyptian bondage is a necessary prelude to fulfilling the mission of God's chosen people. If the progeny of Abraham are to be a source of blessing for the nations of the world (Genesis 12:3), if they are to be a model of what is just and right (Genesis 18:19), then they must have exposure to what is wrong with the world. To endure the insecurity of homelessness and the abasement of slavery is the requisite soil for creating a body politic imbued with principles of equality and justice. The Torah's oft-repeated compassion for the stranger seems to well up from the nightmare of dire oppression.

The Egyptian experience also helps to account for the centrality of the land. The Torah aspired to be more than a corpus of disembodied and untested legal principles and practices. Sacred space served not only as a homeland, but also as a laboratory for turning abstractions into reality When Moses tarried in the midst of the Exodus to take with him the bones of Joseph (Exodus 13:19), he did more than fulfill the words of the man responsible for bringing Jacob's family into Egypt. He took with him the bitter lessons learned in degradation to give birth to a nobler experiment in the freedom of the promised land.

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.