Y aakov’s progeny arrived in Mitzrayim with status and privilege, but didn’t emerge as a nation before that status plummeted from the height of prestige to the abyss of enslavement, humiliation, and oppression. Why did we become G-d’s Chosen People only after this massive darkness?

As we’ve completed Sefer Bereishis — the book devoted to the individual stories of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs — and begin this week with Parshas Shemos, where the story of the Jewish People begins, a basic question confronts us: Why was it orchestrated that Mitzrayim be the birthplace of our nation?

The national life of the Jewish People began in Mitzrayim. Our sojourn there began with special status and privilege as the family of Yosef, but we did not emerge as a nation before our status plummeted from the height of prestige to the abyss of enslavement, humiliation, and oppression. We became a nation, G-d’s Chosen People, only after 210 years in a massive concentration camp. The pasuk describes a pivotal decision by the regime that altered the lives of the Hebrews in the land of Goshen:

“And they appointed over them tax collectors to afflict them with their burdens….” (Shemos 1:11).

Why this choice of words, “tax collectors to afflict them with their burdens”?

The Netziv explains in Ha’amek Davar:

“And these officials would be wicked and deliberately inflict torment on them, not only for the purpose of collecting tax, but in order ‘to afflict them with their burdens,’ thus taxing their strength — through torture, abuse, and beating.”

That is to say, tangible fiscal gain was not Pharaoh’s aim, but rather the mortification of Yaakov’s progeny and the erosion of their self-image. Trampling their honor was much more important to him than any benefit that would accrue to him from their labor in building the cities of Pisom and Ramses.

The concentration camps of Europe operated on the same principle.

“For what purpose,” asked French Jewish scholar and philosopher Professor André Neher, “does Pharaoh refuse to supply the slaves with straw, without which they cannot make bricks? And moreover, he demands that they meet the same daily production quota as before…. This forced labor for its own sake was meant to oppress the people doing it…. We are entering, therefore, into the dark and murky realm of the concentration camps.

“Drowning the male infants in the Nile clearly evokes an association with modern genocide… the demeaning labor is all a show. The victims are the actors, while the taskmasters are the spectators, looking on with glee. In Mitzrayim as in Auschwitz, the whip is a means of showing the spectator’s lively attention to the victim’s acting” (A. Neher, Moses and the Vocation of the Jewish People).

Yet it is precisely here in this Egyptian concentration camp, below the bottom rung of human society, at their darkest hour, that these beaten, broken slaves are described as “a people.” Mitzrayim, our Sages learn, is in its essence — in its 49th rung on the ladder of tumah and human descent — the prototype model for every future dark chapter of galus throughout the centuries. And the spiritual reserves accrued there would give strength to be able to survive all the other Mitzrayims that would follow.

“And I shall take you to Me a people, and I shall be to you a G-d” (Shemos 6:7).

This, Hashem knows, is the right moment for forming the new nation, a nation unlike any other, a nation born in the midst of incongruity. A nation that emerged at a point where any other nation would simply be obliterated. A people that would throw off the shackles of Egyptian captivity and go on to demonstrate total freedom from the same laws of history that spelled the end of mighty nations and empires faced with similar circumstances. By its very existence, this people would proclaim its independence of its physical surroundings, proclaim that it could exist as a cohesive nation even if it had no homeland, no structured government, no flag, and no army — and since they were a nation even without these things, they would know what to do with them when they acquired them.

In other words, the fact that their nationhood was proclaimed in that time and place, while they were slaves in Egypt, made them a nation that was free in the full sense of the word, “not dependent on those conditions which had determined the events of world history up until that point” (Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch on the Torah). And thus, the Egyptian exile and redemption came to teach the world something about the Almighty G-d, Maker of all laws, Who imbued this nation with its spiritual freedom. Not for nothing did the commentators compare Yetzias Mitzrayim, the story of the nation’s formation, to the story of Brias Ha’olam, the world’s creation.

There is a multifaceted message in this early chapter of our national history. The question of why we needed to suffer in exile has been addressed by many commentators. But let us look now at the side effects of galus Mitzrayim and the geulah that ended it, for they, too, are of major historical importance.

One of these reverberations was the contribution of the Jewish People to humanity as a whole:

“The appearance of Avraham’s nation would reawaken man’s consciousness of liberty and release the whole world from its shackles” (Rav Hirsch on the Torah).

Today, we know that the event known to the world as the Exodus made a deep impression on humanity, and not only on people of faith, those who received the Judeo-Christian or Islamic tradition. The glory of Yetzias Mitzrayim shone on the whole world, its message kindling the imaginations of freedom fighters around the globe, promoting the ideal of equality of all who are created in G-d’s image, and setting the wheels of revolution moving time and again, throughout the generations. In the era of slavery in America, the black slaves sang songs of freedom inspired by the Biblical story of the Exodus, such as “Let My People Go,” and the abolitionists who fought on their behalf were equally inspired by the Bible.

To us as a people, galus Mitzrayim gave perpetual existence within human society. The character of our nation’s birth, which seems to contravene all historical logic, is the character of the nation itself. Today, in the post-Auschwitz era, our nation still draws its vitality from the powers it was endowed with long ago, in that ancient Auschwitz. A 19th-century French Catholic writer named Alexandre Saint-Yves d’Alveydre contemplated the Jewish People’s history and perceived the essence of our national character, which he described with a beautiful metaphor:

Like the hawk in the clouds, this little nation does not come to life except when it is buffeted by storm winds that sink mighty ships. It rediscovers its wings and renews its strength, its potency and its energy, and recovers the strength of its first foundations. It rides the storm winds, holding on tight while great states fall into the depths as they foolishly attack one another. That which is liable to destroy any other human society tends to revitalize this one and restore it to its original form.

For the secret of our solidification as a people — davka in Mitzrayim — lives in us eternally. Time and again, after every period of descent, that deeply embedded power causes us to reemerge in another incarnation of our original, eternal form. (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 692)