Pesah: Remembering the Root Cause of the Egyptian Exile
The Yalkut Reubeni raises a question that sometimes gets overlooked at the Seder, when we celebrate the Exodus of Egypt: why did we need to be slaves in the first place? Why did G-d subject Beneh Yisrael to slavery and oppression before miraculously redeeming them?
The Yalkut Reubeni answers that the Egyptian bondage was a punishment "Midda Ke’negged Midda" ("measure for measure") for the sin of Mechirat Yosef – the sale of Yosef as a slave. Since the brothers sold Yosef as a slave to Egypt, the nation endured slavery in Egypt.
A number of allusions to this cause of the Egyptian slavery can be found in the Seder.
We begin Maggid – the section in which we tell about the Exodus – by pointing to the Masa and announcing, "Ha Lahma Anya Di Achalau Abhatana" – "This is the bread of poverty which our forefathers ate" when they were slaves in Egypt. We then proceed to announce that anyone who is hungry, and in need of a meal, is invited into our homes to join us at the Seder. We recognize that our ancestors ate the "bread of poverty," suffering oppression and deprivation, because of the sin of baseless hatred. Rav Haim Vital (1543-1620) taught that a single Mahloket – fight with a fellow Jew – has the effect of denying a person one hundred opportunities to earn a living. Strife and discord are so destructive that even a single fight can block the path to one hundred sources of income which would otherwise be available. We begin the Seder by acknowledging that our ancestors suffered the "bread of poverty" because of their hatred toward their brother – and we seek to rectify this ill by extending an invitation to all our fellow Jews in need of assistance.
Another allusion is the Karpas – the vegetable that we dip in liquid and then eat after Kiddush at the Seder. Rabbenu Manoah (13th century), in his commentary to the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Hametz U’masa 8:2), writes that this custom commemorates the dipping of Yosef’s special cloak in goat’s blood. The Torah tells that Yaakob made for Yosef a "Ketonet Pasim" ("striped tunic"), and Rashi explains this term as related to the word "Karpas," which is listed as one of the luxurious materials with which Ahashverosh adorned his palace (Ester 1:6). This special garment aroused the brothers’ jealousy, eventually leading to the great sin of Mechirat Yosef. After Yosef was sold, they dipped the "Ketonet Pasim" in blood to make it appear as though Yosef had been attacked by an animal. We thus dip the Karpas – a symbol of Yosef’s garment – to commemorate the brothers’ hatred which resulted in our ancestors’ bondage in Egypt.
The Midrash relates that on the eve of the Exodus, the firstborns of Egypt mounted a revolt, triggering a bloody civil war. Moshe had accurately predicted nine plagues, and so after he predicted the tenth, the plague of the firstborn, the firstborns sought to save their lives by taking up arms and waging war against their government, which stubbornly refused to allow Beneh Yisrael to leave and thus brought calamity and devastation upon the people. Rav Yehezkel Landau of Prague (1713-1793) explains this incident based on the notion that when Beneh Yisrael rises, their enemies fall, and vice versa. On the eve of the Exodus, Beneh Yisrael rectified the sin of baseless hatred, bonding together with mutual love, respect and harmony. The consequence of their unity was the disunity of their foes, and thus Egyptian society was torn asunder by strife and civil war.
As we celebrate the great miracle of Yesiat Misrayim, let us also be mindful of its cause, and commit ourselves to avoid conflict and strife, to treat our fellow Jews with kindness, warmth and sensitivity despite our differences and our grievances. Just as our ancestors came together in peace and unity at the time of Yesiat Misrayim, so must we join together as we commemorate this event, and so that we may be deemed worthy of our final redemption, speedily and in our days, Amen.