First Great Empire
[G-d said to Abraham]Your descendants will
foreigners in a land that is not theirs for 400 years. They
will be enslaved and oppressed. But I will finally bring judgment
against the nation who enslaves them, and they will then leave
with great wealth
The more they were oppressed, the more they proliferated
As we enter a new solar year, we begin a new chapter
in history: We start reading the second book of Torah, the book
of Exodus/Shemot, which documents the first global clash of
civilizations, the first historical case of state sponsored
racial discrimination, as well as the first organized act of
Anti-Semitism and genocide.
After Jacob, Joseph and his brothers all pass
away, a new king arises in Egypt, one who does not recognize
Joseph. Sensing a threat from the Israelites, Pharaoh incites
the Egyptian nation to rise up and enslave the Israelites. “The
Israelites are becoming too numerous and strong for us…they
may increase so much, that if there is war, they will join our
enemies and fight against us, driving us from the land.”
The book of Exodus continues with Moses being
sent by G-d to redeem the people, his confrontation with Pharaoh,
and finally how he prevails and frees the Jews from Egypt in
the great Exodus which we commemorate ever since. The book of
Exodus continues with the subsequent events following the Exodus:
the parting of the Sea, the receiving of the Torah at Sinai
and the building of the Mishkan, the portable Sanctuary.
Though the book of Exodus begins with the enslavement
of Israel by the Egyptians, the terrible oppression thy endured
for 210 years, our sages call it the “Book of Redemption,” the “book in which Israel goes
from darkness to light.”
In other words, Exodus is the story of process
– the process of loss and renewal, of suffering and growth,
the process of death and birth.
The Egyptian exile served as an ‘iron furnace’
that hardened the Israelites and shaped them into a great nation,
an eternal nation. The oppression that the Israelites endured
in Egypt is precisely the source for their strength. “The
more they were oppressed, the more they proliferated and grew.”
In the Book of Genesis the stage is set. All the
characters that will shape civilization to come are in place:
Abraham, Sarah, Ishmael, Isaac, Esau, Jacob, Joseph and his
brothers (see at length last week’s essay). Everything that
happened in the first book in microcosm now begins to play itself
out in the real world, in macrocosm. Everything that happened
to the patriarchs is an indication for their children.
In this new Book of Exodus real life begins. The
first real national challenge takes place. True, in Genesis
there were many battles, but relatively speaking, they were
all on a microcosmic plane, between individuals – between brothers
in their homes. The slavery in Egypt is the first global conflict:
The superpower Egypt declares war on the Israelites. And it
is not just a battle, it is an aggressive sustained effort to
suppress, enslave and utterly demoralize a nation. To steal
the power of freedom from an entire nation.
Egypt is the first great empire, the archetype
of all empires to come. All exiles, all challenges, all forms
of bondage and oppression are called by the name mitzrayim.
The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, means limits and
boundaries. It represents constraints, inhibitions and traps
of every form and shape – psychological, emotional, physical,
After all the seeds are planted in the book
of Genesis - up until the preparations for the great exile
by Joseph (see essay Joseph’s
Treasures) - finally, the vision of Abraham several hundred
years ago is fulfilled. You may recall that G-d shows Abraham
the events to come. Abraham was told that his “descendants
will be foreigners in a land that is not theirs for 400 years”
and they will ultimately leave “with great wealth.”
He is shown the future great empires that would control and
terrorize the world, each in their own way: the Babylonian,
Persian, Greek, Roman and Ishmaelite empires (see
essay Abraham’s Vision).
These empires represent the different stages of
refinement (birur) that we achieve throughout the generations.
Everything in our material existence contains Divine ‘sparks,’
i.e. spiritual energy, and we are charged with the mission to
redeem and elevate these sparks, and thereby refine the material
universe and transform it into its true purpose: a vehicle for
Beginning with the enslavement by the Egyptian
empire – the archetype and root (‘head’) of all the exiles and
empires – each subsequent empire symbolizes another stage of
refinement in integrating G-dliness into the material world.
The process concludes with the refinement of the last two powers,
Edom (Esau) and Ishmael, which leads to the Messianic age –
a world where there is no more destruction and terror and all
children of Abraham serve the One G-d of Abraham in peace and
Abraham’s vision begins to be realized in this
week’s Torah portion. Abraham’s descendants begin their hard
labor under Egyptian enslavement in order to refine the land
and leave with great wealth – the great wealth of the 202 Divine
sparks they will refine and elevate during the Egyptian bondage.
As the archetype of all exiles to come, this 202 refinement
process empowers all generations to come to endure, prevail
and elevate their respective sparks in their respective time,
under each of the world empires to come.
So, as we open a new book of Torah, we enter a
new world, a very real world where pain is perhaps more prominent
than joy. A world that can at times appear senseless and directionless.
With all life’s challenges we often feel enslaved – by our work,
by our passions, by material life and all its demands and burdens.
We each find ourselves in our own little (or big) Mitzrayim
– the forces that trap and constrain us. All our inhibitions
and fears sometimes seem the ones in control.
Is there hope? Yes, but only if we respect and
embrace the process.
Can we break out of the patterns that seem to
trap us? Can we ever truly transcend and reach over and beyond,
or are we forever locked in a world with a glass ceiling, a
world that is going nowhere, where, as cynics say: the more
things change, the more they stay the same?
These questions are answered in the story of the
Egyptian Exile. Yes, life is harsh. Yes, life can be overbearing.
Yes, we are enslaved in many ways. But within the oppression
lies the freedom. As the misery grows, Moses is born to save
the people. Exile is but one step in the process of redemption.
Darkness is a step toward light.
And we hold onto the process by remembering Abraham’s
vision, in which he is shown the entire picture, not just the
oppression but also the freedom and the ‘great wealth’ that
follows. As Moses is born, he begins to fulfill the vision that
was revealed to Abraham seven generations earlier.
Our greatest challenge is not allowing ourselves
to be deceived by the momentary pain. Our broken spirits and
hard labor can often stop us from hearing the voice of hope
Never has the message been more appropriate and
relevant than today – as we face another global confrontation
involving all the children of Abraham, revolving around the
same region where our Torah story takes place.
Allow me to speak in personal terms.
Though several months have passed since September
11 and all wounds heal, I look around and see people struggling.
They are struggling between the past and the future. September
11 has exposed a raw nerve. A new reality that many of us have
never seen before. We are still numbed by it. Yet, we want to
move ahead, we want to almost believe that nothing has changed
and that things are going to go back just to the way they were.
Yet… Yet there is gnawing feeling inside that perhaps things
are not going back. And then what?
Standing between two paradigms is perhaps the
most unsettling feeling in life. As a child I remember the difficulty
of learning how to dive into a swimming pool. How many times
did I count to 10, summer after summer, and could not bring
myself to take my first dive? I probably would still not know
how to dive had someone not pushed me in. What fear did I face?
I knew how to swim, so it wasn’t the fear of water. I knew how
to jump, so it wasn’t the fear of jumping. The fear was: the
suspension – the split second when you are neither on the ground
nor in the water. This unknown stops us from moving forward.
But no great move can happen without a transition, and every
transition inevitably requires at least a suspended moment as
we shed one layer to assume a new one.
When big events happen that affect a critical
mass, the forces unleashed are unpredictable. Too many unknown
variables, too many confluences and synergies strip us of context
and familiar points of reference. The events following September
11 are like a seismic shift that has shaken up the entire system.
Yet that is precisely why this time is so precious.
We stand in a rare time in history – a moment
that separates two paradigms. Paradigms have shifted in the
past. Yet, they usually happen in an invisible fashion. We cannot
see the crack that divides before and after - we recognize it
only in retrospect. Today we may be able to see it.
That is why we are so unsettled – suspended between
two states, in the twilight zone of the unknown.
Our best recourse is to find precedents to moments
like this. To ask those that have been here before us: What
is it like?
The opening of the book of Exodus tells us in
detail about one of the first big paradigm shifts in history,
one that took place around 3800 years ago, and one that sets
the tone for all future shifts.
May we learn from the Egyptian exile. May we see
our experiences today as a wake up call to transcend our hardships
and fears – to listen to the voice of Moses that we will be
redeemed, we will be free. As the prophet Micha tells us:
“As in the days of Egypt I will show you wonders.”
 Ramban end of Exodus.
 Midrash, Bereishis Rabba 3:5.