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The 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
Genesis 15:13-14

The more they were oppressed, the more they proliferated and grew
Exodus 1:12

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 they endured for 210 years, our sages call it the “Book of Redemption,” 1  the “book in which Israel goes from darkness to light.” 2

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, spiritual.

After all the seeds are planted in the book of Genesis – up until the preparations for the great exile by Joseph – 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.

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 spiritual expression.

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 harmony.

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 (Exodus 6:9).

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.”


Show 2 footnotes

  1. Ramban end of Exodus.
  2. Midrash, Bereishis Rabba 3:5.
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