Slavery in Egypt

At first, the family of Jacob entered Egypt as honored, invited guests. With the passage of time, however, things turned drastically worse. Not long before Jacob’s family arrived, the Egyptians threw off the yoke of a foreign occupier, the Asiatic Hyksos people .As a result, Egypt became a xenophobic society. When the Jews began multiplying rapidly and penetrating all areas of Egyptian society, a great backlash ensued.

The following chart notes the similarities between Egyptian slavery and the Nazi Holocaust:

Verse in Exodus Event in the Holocaust
“The Israelites were fertile and prolific and their population increased.” (Exodus 1:7) Jews prosper in Germany
“A new king, who did not know of Joseph, came into power over Egypt.” (Exodus 1:8) Hitler assumes power in Germany
“He announced to his people, ‘Behold the Israelites are becoming too numerous and strong for us. We must deal wisely with them. Otherwise, they will join our enemies and drive us from the land.’” (Exodus 1:9-10) Hitler claims the Jews are a threat to Germany and strong measures must be taken against them
“They appointed officers to crush their spirits with hard labor. They (Israelites) built cities…and they (the Egyptians) became disgusted because of the children of Israel.” (Exodus 1:11-12) Discrimination: the Nuremberg Laws distinguished between duties of citizens (Aryans) and state subjects (Jews)
“And the Egyptians forced the Israelites to do back-breaking work. They embittered their lives with difficult labor.” (Exodus 1:13-14) Slave labor, ghettoes, dehumanization
“And the king of Egypt said… ‘If a son is born you shall kill him.’” (Exodus 1:16, 22) Extermination
“And the king of Egypt died, and the Israelites groaned and cried out.” (Exodus 2:23) Rashi comments that Pharaoh became ill and used blood of Jewish children as a cure. Nazi medical experiments on Jews

The Exodus

There are several figures given for the length of the Egyptian exile. Genesis 15:13 mentions 400 years, while Exodus 12:40 puts its duration at 430 years. The Midrash arrives at another three numbers: 210, 116 and 86. The following list places each number in proper perspective:

Year 2018—At the Bris Bein Habsorim, (Covenant Between the Parts) G‑d tells Abrahamthat his descendants will be exiles in Egypt for 400 years. This is 430 years before the Exodus.

Year 2048Isaac is born. The 400 years of exile date from his birth.

Year 2238—Jacob’s family comes to Egypt. This is 210 years before the Exodus.

Year 2332—Egyptian slavery begins after the death of Levi, the last of Jacob’s sons. This is 116 years before the Exodus.

Year 2362—The most intense persecution, which lasts 86 years, begins when Miriam, the sister of Moses, is born. Her name means “bitter” in Hebrew.

Year 2448—The Exodus.

Purpose of Slavery in Egypt

The long servitude had a positive effect on the character of the nation in several ways. First, the Jewish people developed a sense of gratitude toward G‑d and therefore readily accepted the Torah. In the absence of such a national mood, Moses would have had to debate the pros and cons of adopting the Torah’s lifestyle with each individual Jew. Second, a Jew is constantly duty-bound to keep the mitzvahs; Egyptian slavery provided the requisite sense of subservience to a master. Third, Jews learned to sympathize with disadvantaged people. Numerous commandments require the Jew to part with his hard-won earnings and share them with others. The Torah often mentions in connection with such precepts, “And you shall remember that you were slaves in Egypt; therefore, I command you to do this thing.” Even Jews who strayed from Jewish observance have still exhibited this basic Jewish characteristic and have been active in founding the labor-union, socialist, and civil rights movements, and in establishing hospitals and charitable foundations.

Miracles of the Exodus

The period of the Exodus was a time of spectacular, open miracles witnessed by millions of Jews and Egyptians and unprecedented in history before or since. Ramban explains that at the formation of the Jewish religion, miracles of such magnitude were necessary to prove the existence of G‑d beyond a shadow of a doubt. If the Jews who received the Torah did not experience G‑d personally, they would not have transmitted the Torah to future generations and Judaism would have died out, G‑d forbid. Therefore, once the veracity of the Torah rested on solid foundations, there was no need for G‑d to perform further miracles to satisfy every skeptic. In the words of the historian, Paul Johnson:

“The stories of the plagues of Egypt, and the other wonders and miracles which preceded the Israelite break-out, have so dominated our reading of Exodus that we sometimes lose sight of the sheer physical fact of the successful revolt and escape of a slave-people, the only one recorded in antiquity. It became an overwhelming memory for the Israelites who participated in it. For those who heard, and later read, about it, the Exodus gradually replaced the Creation itself as the central, determining event in Jewish history. Something happened at the frontiers of Egypt that persuaded the eyewitnesses that G‑d had intervened directly and decisively in their fate. The way it was related and set down convinced subsequent generations that this unique demonstration of G‑d’s mightiness on their behalf was the most remarkable event in the whole history of nations.” (A History of the Jews, p.26)

Archaeology and the Torah

In the 19th Century, German Bible scholars led by Julius Wellhausen developed the spurious study known as Biblical Criticism. Influenced by anti-Semitism, they said that the stories of Genesis and Exodus were myths, written many years after the traditional date of the giving of the Torah. However, “truth sprouts from the ground” (Psalms 85:12), and modern scientific archaeology has completely refuted this theory. Recent discoveries include:

  1. Excavations made at Ur, Abraham’s birthplace, show a city with a sophisticated level of culture, contradicting the theory that the ancestors of the Jews were desert savages.
  2. Tablets at Nuzi contain patriarchal-type names, such as Abram, Jacob, Leah, Laban, and Ishmael. Issues such as childlessness, divorce, inheritance, and birthrights are dealt with in a similar fashion as in Genesis. In the words of Paul Johnson: “All this Genesis material dealing with the problems of immigration, of water wells and contracts and birthrights, is fascinating because it places the patriarchs so firmly in their historical setting, and testifies to the Bible’s great antiquity and authenticity.”
  3. Egyptian hieroglyphics and pictorial representations in tombs show one of the pharaohs investing his vizier with linen garments, a royal signet ring, and a special gold neck chain. This is exactly the way Joseph was honored by Pharaoh. (Genesis 41:42) Egyptian records also speak of a man of Semitic origin rising to power at the royal court.
  4. A papyrus from Rameses II’s reign, Leiden 348, states: “Distribute grain rations to the soldiers and to the Habiru who transport stones to the great pylon of Rameses,” corresponding to the facts presented in the biblical narrative.
  5. The Ipuwer Papyrus, Leiden 344, is an Egyptian account of plagues striking the country. It mentions the plagues of blood, hail, death of cattle, and vast numbers of people dying. Mention is also made of a population fleeing. Of course, Jews throughout the ages have always relied upon the Tanach, the Scriptures,as interpreted by the rabbinic sages, as the true and complete account of historical events. In this age of skepticism, however, it is important for those who respect non-Jewish sources to make use of secular testimony.

Receiving the Torah

Seven weeks after the Exodus, the defining moment in Jewish and world history arrived. In total unity, unequaled before or since, the Jewish people lovingly agreed to accept the Torah, and the purpose of creation thus was realized. Their decision was not based on impulse or mass hysteria. Instead, it was a conscious, rational choice made with a full understanding of the great ramifications that would come about as a result of this undertaking. The three million Jews who received the Torah were intelligent, highly critical human beings who could not have been forced or bamboozled by Moses into accepting the Torah. At Sinai, the entire Jewish people attained the prophetic level of Moses when G‑d directly transmitted the first two commandments to them face-to-face. (Moses transmitted the other eight of the Ten Commandments.) The magnitude of the moment, when the Jews became G‑d’s people, was indelibly sealed into the Jewish soul for all time.

Matan Torah is the basis of Jewish belief. The claim of a public, national revelation distinguishes Judaism from all other religions. The Torah repeatedly exhorts the Jewish people not to forget what each had personally seen and to transmit it to his and her children. If the parents had not individually witnessed such a cataclysmic event, they would never have taught their children something they knew to be false. While it is certainly possible for parents to teach lies to their children if they are legends the parents believe that happen to be false, or if the lies are fallacious ideals the parents believe, such as Communism, nevertheless parents will never wittingly teach their children something they know to be patently untrue. Furthermore, such a transmittal of fallacious information simply could not occur over scores of generations literally all across the globe. The famous author James Michener, in The Bridge At Andau, writesthat students began the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 because in school they learned the falsified Communist history of their country, while their parents taught them the truth at home. The contradiction between truth and falsehood inspired them to revolt.

It is obvious from the Torah itself that it is a Divine and not man-made document. The Torah commands that Jewish farmers in the land of Israel refrain from planting every seventh year, shmittah. After every seven shmittah cycles, yovel, the 50th Jubilee year, follows, thus making two consecutive years in which agricultural activity is proscribed. The Torah then guarantees that there will be sufficient crops in the sixth year to last the following three years. No human, no matter how powerful, would be so foolish to make such a promise. In another example, all Jewish men are required to visit the Holy Temple in Jerusalem on the holidays of Pesach, Shavuos, and Succos, thereby leaving the borders undefended. The Torah then assures the Jewish people that no enemy will dare to attack. Once again, no human would – or could – make such a promise. When discussing the formation of a Jewish army on the battlefield, the Torah commands that all soldiers who are afraid should return home. Historically, nations have always tried to recruit as many soldiers as possible and have unremittingly punished draft-dodgers. Once again, no human has ever said such a thing – especially in time of war. As further proof of the Torah’s divinity, a kosher animal has two characteristics: split hooves and cud chewing. The Torah lists but four animals that have one of the two signs, thereby implying that no others exist. In the three thousand years since the Torah was given, thousands of creatures have been discovered (and are still being discovered today) in such diverse locations such as North and South America, Africa, Australia and Southeast Asia. Every one of these animals has either both signs or none, but not a single animal has only one kosher sign. Obviously, no human could have written such a statement.

Concurrent with the Written Law (the five books of the Torah), G‑d transmitted the oral explanations (Torah Sheba’al Peh) to Moses. It is evident from many mitzvahs that such oral explanations are necessary. For example, the Torah prescribes the death penalty for working on the Sabbath, but does not define exactly what work is. In regard to Yom Kippur, the Torah says, “Any soul who does not afflict itself will be cut off (kares — Heavenly death) from its people.” As with work, the Torah does not define affliction. On Succos, Jews are commanded to take the “fruit of a beautiful tree.” While there are certainly many beautiful fruit-bearing trees, the oral tradition specifies which one is proper for the mitzvah. It is only the oral tradition as transmitted by G‑d to Moses that defines 39 major categories of labor prohibited on the Sabbath, affliction on Yom Kippur as fasting, and the fruit of the beautiful tree as the esrog (citron). Perhaps the most famous example of the oral tradition elucidating the written Torah is the verse “An eye for an eye,” which does not call for maiming an injurer but instead for assessing monetary payment for injuries accrued.

Clearly, Western Civilization bases its morals and ethics on the Torah. In the ancient world, however, the Torah’s ideals were revolutionary. Concepts such as respect for human life, monotheism, social welfare, and the rights of such disadvantaged people as widows and slaves simply did not exist. Even worse, human sacrifice was prevalent, and in many societies, such as the Greek, Chinese, and Eskimo, female or deformed infants were killed or left to die. In some American Indian tribes, widows were robbed of all their possessions and left to freeze outdoors. With time, the Torah’s ideals have spread throughout the world. Indeed, the Torah is the perennial global best seller, having been translated into every language on Earth.

The 40 Years in the Desert

The generation that lived in the desert was the greatest in Jewish history, experiencing constant miracles including the Manna, Clouds of Glory, and the constant manifestation of G‑d’s Divine Presence, the Shechina, in the Tabernacle, the Mishkan. All the Jews’ physical needs were miraculously fulfilled, enabling them to use their utmost ability to learn the entire Torah from Moses, the greatest teacher in Jewish history. Over a 40-year period they only committed 10 sins, but G‑d judged the Jewish people harshly, commensurate with their greatness, and they were not permitted to enter the land of Israel. They did not have a slave mentality, as many erroneously claim, but instead were intelligent, thinking people who constantly criticized Moses and argued with him over anything not meeting their approval. To this day, the Jewish people constantly yearn to recapture the splendor of those times, as King Solomon so eloquently expresses in the Song of Songs 1:2: “Communicate Your innermost wisdom to me again in loving closeness.”