Dear Rabbi,

I read in the Passover Haggadah reader that had G‑d not taken us out of Egypt thousands of years ago, we would still be slaves today.

Do we really believe that? A lot has happened since then. Kings have been overthrown, countries have changed hands and peoples have dispersed. Perhaps it would have taken hundreds, maybe even thousands of years, but sooner or later, wasn’t our slavery bound to end?


That’s a good question. The answer depends on how you define leaving Egypt.

You see, there were two aspects to the exodus from Egypt:

  1. The physical/geographical departure.
  2. The mental/psychological redemption.

There is a cliché I often hear that actually describes the dual nature of the exodus: It’s one thing for the Jews to leave Egypt. It’s another thing for Egypt to leave the Jews.

The Jewish nation was redeemed from Egypt at the last possible moment. Had they stayed just a little bit longer, it would have been “game over.” The hundreds of years of slavery had taken their toll, steeping them in a slave mentality. The Israelites had reached a spiritual nadir, and were becoming more like Egyptians than like their ancestors, Abraham and Sarah.

Would they have eventually left Egypt? Who knows. Perhaps they would have become entirely assimilated with the Egyptians. Maybe not. But even if they had left Egypt at a later time, they would not have become a nation with their own distinct Jewish identity.

Take, for example, the black population of Mauritania, in western Africa. Many years after slavery was outlawed in their country and the slaves were freed, slavery still had not left their psyche. As one of them told a New York Times reporter in 1997, eighteen years after slavery was abolished, “Just as G‑d created a camel to be a camel, He created me to be a slave.”

For the Jews to leave slavery—both physical slavery and their internal self-definition that kept them enslaved—they needed to leave Egypt not one moment later than they did. And for that, they needed to leave with a supernatural intervention. If the redemption would have come about naturally, they might have willingly returned to Egypt and the identity they knew as slaves. In fact, even with their miraculous transformation from slaves to a free people, some still complained to Moses, “Is it not better for us to return to Egypt?”1

It took a direct revelation of G‑dliness to instantly transform slaves into a free people, an act for which we thank G‑d to this very day.2

See My Plastic Pharaoh from our section on Slavery.