Pesach: Now that is Slavery!

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

Our images of Egyptian slavery are those of forced labor and murder by a ruthless tyrant and his many followers. Despite Joseph literally saving Egypt from ruin, "a new king arose who knew not Joseph" (Shemot 1:8). Taxation, hard labor, loss of freedom of movement and eventually murder of Jewish children soon followed. This was a nation who knew not G-d, and even after ten plagues and the death of their firstborn, persisted in their stubbornness by chasing us into the sea. 

While the above is true, the complete picture, as always, is a little more nuanced. The Torah itself tells us that that "And G-d disposed the Egyptians favourably toward the people [of Israel]" (Shemot 11:3). They surely did not hate us as they willingly showered us with gifts just hours (maybe minutes) after losing their firstborn children. Unlike Amon and Moav, from whose nations we were not allowed to ever accept (male) converts, the ban on Egyptian converts was to last only until the third generation. It is Amalek, not Egypt, who is our eternal enemy. 

The Torah tells us time and time again to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt and to show gratitude to our Egyptian hosts. Memories of Egypt are to lead to kindness to others: "Do not oppress a foreigner... for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt" (Shemot 23:9). Nechama Leibowitz z"l quotes commentaries that explain that the reason G-d wanted the Egyptians to shower gifts on our ancestors was so that the Jewish people would leave with a good feeling towards the Egyptian people. 

In fact, life was so good that while in the desert, the Jews repeatedly yearned to go back to Egypt. "We fondly remember the fish that we could eat in Egypt at no cost, along with the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic" (Bamidbar 11:5). No wonder our Sages declare that only one in five Jews (and some say one in fifty) left Egypt. The vast majority were happy to stay in Egypt. As the Netziv explains in his commentary on the Haggada (s.v. Avadim hayenu), tens of thousands of Jews attained great wealth and many even had positions of great influence. They had no desire to trek into the desert with some low-class peasants and "factory workers". 

But what about the slavery, the hard work, and the killings, you may ask? Our commentaries point out that the killing of the first born was for a short time only- starting after the birth of Aharon and ending shortly after the birth of Moshe (see Ramban 1:10). While there were anti-Jewish laws, many managed to avoid harm's way. 

The Haggada stresses that we were slaves to Pharaoh—we mainly worked for kings and noblemen, living in fancy homes with the best of food. 

Of course, not all Jews were so "successful". Many worked hard without rising above the position of menial labourers, subsiding on poor man's bread. But they, apparently, were the exception. 

"The Egyptians ill-treated us, Vayareu, oppressed us and laid heavy labours upon us" (Devarim 26:6). While the Hebrew Vayareu is normally associated with ra, bad or evil, it can also be understood to come from the root re'ah—a friendly neighbour, as in, “and you shall love your neighbour, re'acha, as yourself". The Egyptians befriended our ancestors, recognizing that this was the best way to have them become loyal Egyptians. The Torah makes clear that the entire process of "slavery" began because the Egyptians were nervous about the growing Jewish population. They feared their large minority would side with a potential invading enemy. Surely the way to allay this fear was to treat them as equals, integrating them as best they could into society and not to discriminate against them. “Let us deal wisely with them" (Shemot 1:10), Pharaoh said. It was at this point that the Jews were asked to volunteer to help in the major infrastructure projects of Egypt—a task that would surely bind them to Egypt. And as usual, the Jews were overrepresented as they vied to prove their loyalty to their new land. 

Eventually this volunteer force was caught up in very difficult labor, and slowly but surely, a slave mentality took root. We must remember that it was not only Jews who were enslaved in Egypt—no one could leave. And Pharaoh, fearing for his kingdom, actually commanded "to all his people (not just the Jews); every boy who is born must be cast onto the Nile" (1:22). Yes, some Jews suffered greatly in Egypt but most likely on the whole, the Jews fared better than most. 

On Pesach night we must be inspired to fight for freedom for all mankind. Whether or not those enslaved are many or just a small minority is, from an ethical perspective, of no relevance. Only when freedom is assured for all can our seder be complete.