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Faith Among the Pyramids

Shmot (Exodus 1:1-6:1 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

The Jewish view of exile.

And these were the names of the Children of Israel who were coming to Egypt; with Jacob, each man and his household came. Reuben, Simeon...(Exodus 1:1)

The commentators all remark on the fact that this passage beginning the Book of Exodus is almost a word-for-word repetition of a passage toward the end of the Book of Genesis (47:8) and is therefore entirely superfluous.

The consensus that emerges from the various opinions offered is that the reason for the repetition is to describe the Egyptian exile from its very inception, and it is at this point that the exile truly begins.

As long as Jacob and his sons were alive the sojourn in Egypt did not feel like an exile.

As long as Jacob and his sons were alive the sojourn in Egypt did not feel like an exile. The collective merit of these great tzadikim was sufficient to prevent any harsh measures being imposed against the Jewish people. Until they all passed away at the end of Genesis, Jews lived in Egypt much as they would have lived in Israel. They were totally enveloped in the atmosphere of holiness generated by these great people, and they were free of foreign oppression. Only when all these greats were gone did the people realize in full that their presence in Egypt was an exile.

Thus we find the signs of oppression, the beginning of enforced labor, the edict imposed by the Pharaoh against the male children, related here.

By beginning again with the arrival of Jacob and his children, the historic span of this portion of the Torah manages to embrace the entire 210-year period of the Egyptian exile, as it ends with the description of Moses' first meeting with Pharaoh when he was 80 years old, just one year prior to the Exodus.

This emphasizes the fact that this entire period was part of the exile even though its initial years were painless.


The Egyptian exile is a very anomalous phenomenon among Jewish exiles. All the other exiles suffered by the Jewish people were clearly in retribution for their sins.

The Torah and the prophets are full of dire warnings about the consequences of Jewish sins and their correlation with the various exiles suffered by the Jewish people. But the Egyptian exile does not seem to be preceded by any Jewish sin.

This is emphasized by the way the Torah goes out of its way to describe its beginnings. The children of Israel arrived in Egypt as a small tribe of 70 individuals. They only became a nation in Egypt. Their exile in Egypt could not have been a consequence of national sin. So why where they in exile?

Surprisingly, if we examine the Torah concept of exile closely, we find that its correlation with the idea of punishment is merely coincidental. While no doubt if Israel were free of sin it would never have been forced to enter any of its other exiles beside the Egyptian one, nevertheless the understanding of exile as punishment is incorrect.

Indeed, Rabbi Dessler explains exile in terms of correction of faults of character rather than in terms of punishment.


Every exile is an existential test whose successful survival automatically corrects a basic flaw in the Jewish sense of identity and self-awareness. If there were no such character flaw, or if it were corrected by Jews themselves without the need of any outside pressure, the exile would be superfluous.

The object of the suffering that is endured in exile is always positive.

But whereas suffering that is a consequence of retribution and punishment is essentially negative, the object of the suffering that is endured in exile is always positive.

The correct way to regard exile is to perceive it as a very powerful existential corrective tool. Jews necessarily correct a major national character flaw by simply enduring the suffering associated with exile.

Thus, even in the absence of sin, exile can be employed as the most effective method available to correct some fault in the character of the Jewish nation.

According to Rabbi Dessler, the Torah view of the very first exile, the 210-year sojourn in Egypt, is that it came to correct the character flaw of lack of faith in God.

The faith in God that resides in the hearts of the Jewish nation is an inheritance from the patriarchs. God Himself stated:

Shall I conceal from Abraham what I do now that Abraham is surely to become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by him? For I have loved him, because he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of God, doing charity and justice, in order that God might then bring upon Abraham that which he had spoken of him. (Genesis 18:17-19)

Abraham grows into a great and mighty nation because God loves him, and this love is extended to Abraham because he knows how to pass on his belief in God and his adherence to His ways to his children. Thus, the tiniest flaw in Abraham's faith is bound to appear in his children in magnified form, just as a tiny flaw in the roots of a plant will appear magnified in its shoots and branches.


We find precisely such a tiny flaw in Abraham's faith in God. When God promised Abraham children, he accepted God's promise at face value with perfect faith.

And he trusted God, and he reckoned it to him as a righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)

Yet, when God promised to grant the land of Israel to his descendants for all time, Abraham was not as trusting. He asked God for a guarantee:

How can I really know that it will be mine? (Genesis 15:8).

Abraham could not guarantee his children would not sin, therefore, he found it difficult to believe that God could guarantee the inheritance of Israel to his children for all time. As the consequence of sin is exile, he found himself unable to accept God's promise at face value.

It was for this lack of faith that God imposed the edict of the Egyptian exile on his children. (See Rashi in the name of the Midrash.)

The first rung in the character of the Jewish nation must be unshakable faith in God.

The first rung in the character of the Jewish nation must be unshakable faith in God. It is a greater necessity for a Jewish nation than a national homeland or an army. The purpose of the Egytian exile was the development of such faith. Indeed, it was a precondition to forming the eternal contract with God at Mount Sinai.

But is Abraham's request for a guarantee truly a demonstration of a lack of faith as we understand faith? Isn't Abraham perfectly correct? Surely, we do have free will, and surely no one can guarantee that we will not sin, not even God, and surely the punishment for sin is exile as the Torah itself repeatedly points out, so how can we relate to Abraham's skepticism as a lack of faith?

Before we attempt to answer this question, let us explain how a national lack of faith can be effectively remedied through exile in Egypt specifically.


When Moses describes the land of Israel to the Jewish people, he contrasts it with Egypt in terms of the attribute of faith.

For the land to which you come, to possess it – it is not like the land of Egypt that you left, where you would plant your seed and water it on foot like a vegetable garden. But the land to which you cross over to possess it is a land of hills and valleys; from the rain of heaven will it drink water; a land that the Lord your God seeks out; the eyes of the Lord, your God, are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to year's end. (Deut. 11:11-12)

Living in Egypt, whose chief water source is the system of irrigation ditches that catch the overflow from the annual flooding of the Nile, does not require the maintenance of a close relationship with God. But living in Israel, which depends entirely on rainfall, is only possible for a people that have such a close relationship with God that "the eyes of God are always focused on them from the beginning of the year to its end."

Egyptians can survive without faith in God, but the Jewish people were deliberately presented with a homeland where faith in God is a necessity of life.

In fact, Egypt was a land that worshipped the powers of nature, rather than an abstract spiritual Divinity. The Egyptian gods were the Sun, the engine that powers nature, and the lamb, the Zodiacal sign associated with the month of Nissan, the first month of spring, symbolizing the power of natural renewal.

Egyptologists inform us that according to Egyptian belief, even the world of the spirits was a natural place that was really part of the physical world. After death, departing souls migrated to this part of the natural world, and it was possible to equip them with the provisions they would require to be able to continue a life of luxury.

Hence the science of mummification, the preservation of the physical integrity of the departed, and hence the pyramids, those elaborate tombs that are one of the wonders of the world, where the Egyptian royalty could keep on living eternally in splendid luxury.

Our historical understanding of the Egyptian view of life thus entirely corresponds to the Torah's description of Egypt as a place where the prevailing culture did not subscribe to faith in a purely spiritual God.


The exiled Jew in Egypt faced an enormous temptation to assimilate.

At the beginning of Exodus Pharaoh expressly states that his motive for oppressing the Jews is entirely defensive.

Behold the people, the Children of Israel, are more numerous and stronger than we. Come, let us outsmart it lest it become numerous and it may be that if a war will occur, it, too, may join our enemies, and wage war against us and go up from the land. (Exodus 1:9-10)

Pharaoh was afraid of the Jews because they simply refused to blend into the Egyptian melting pot. They refused to change their names, or their language or their mode of dress. (See Shir HaShirim Rabba 4:1 among many references.)

A Jew in Egypt was constantly subjected to the message that he was living in misery through his own choice.

A Jew in Egypt was constantly subjected to the message that he was living in oppression and misery through his own choice, only because he refused to conform to the host culture. If he would agree to internalize it and adopt its outer trappings, he could not only improve his lot, but could aspire to reach the highest levels of Egyptian society. After all, didn't Joseph attain the position of number two in the Egyptian empire?

So why continue to cling in misery to the faith in God handed down by the patriarchs when you could enjoy the benefits of a great life without the necessity of believing in any form of Divine intercession at all?

In the face of this temptation, the Jews stubbornly refused to assimilate. They clung to their language, their name and their own mode of dress, insistently presenting the face of a threatening foreign body. They chose to suffer for the preservation of their faith.

Why? Wasn't the incontrovertible evidence that none of this was necessary displayed in plain view every day?


When we search the world for examples of voluntary endurance of suffering by large numbers of people, the word love immediately springs to the mind. People will endure much suffering not to be separated from someone they love.

To surrender one's faith in God is to surrender one's connection to God as well. For a person who feels close to God, abandoning his faith is akin to abandoning his child.

In fact, this principle applies to human relationships as well. It is a well-known fact that love and trust are very closely associated. Trust is really faith. To lose trust in a loved one is to lose the love and the entire relationship.

If the Jewish nation was willing to pay the price of suffering 210 years of Egyptian oppression to cling to its faith in God, their stubborn perseverance is a measure of the greatness of their love.


What does faith in God mean? People have often remarked that the obligation to have faith in God is a paradox. Either one already believes in God, in which case the obligation to do so is entirely superfluous, or one does not, in which case it is absurd. If I don't believe in God in the first place, there is no God in my perception who can obligate me to believe in Him. But this is a very shallow view of faith.

The obligation to have faith in God is an obligation never to break the connection with Him. Thus, the commandment to believe in God – the first commandment in the Torah – is really a commandment to preserve one's connection with God at any price on the grounds that the relationship with God is the most important of all human relationships.

This also explains why the outer trappings of faith are so important.

This also explains why the outer trappings of faith are so important. Why didn't the Jews of Egypt say to themselves, "There is no need to antagonize the Egyptians with the outward display of our Judaism. After all our faith is in our hearts. Why shouldn't we adopt Egyptian names, speak the language and wear the clothes? What do these outward displays have to do with our inner beliefs?"

Connections require expression. Philosophy is in the mind, but relationships must be manifest in the real world.

To be an Egyptian in everything but mind, is to be an Egyptian all the way. The essence of an Egyptian is that he has no faith. But a man of faith must look like a man of faith. If his faith is not demonstrated in the way he lives his life, it is not the faith that fuels love and relationship, but merely the empty faith of dogma and ideology.


Joseph harnessed his chariot and went up to meet Israel his father in Goshen. He appeared before him, fell on his neck, and he wept on his neck excessively. (Genesis 46:29)

Rashi is bothered by the singular verb in this verse. Surely the verse should read that they wept on each other's necks. But Rashi explains that the verb is in the singular because only Joseph wept.

When Jacob embraced Joseph, Jacob recited the Shema. At this supreme emotional moment Jacob connected his love for Joseph with his love for God.

His relationship with Joseph falls into place only in context of his understanding that the God of Israel is the One and Only.

All of life and its relationships take on significance in the context of this supreme relationship. Every aspect of life is tinged by one's faith in God.

Abraham asked for a guarantee because he knew that he could not attach his children to God with such a powerful bond that it could never be broken no matter what they would have to endure to preserve it. To create such a powerful bond between God and the future generations of Israel was beyond his capacity. Such a bond could only be forged by the self-sacrifice voluntarily endured by the Jewish nation in Egypt to hang on to its faith.

Abraham could teach his children about the existence of God. But such mental knowledge is not sufficient to preserve the bond between God and human beings that the land of Israel represents. To preserve such a bond one has to learn to live with faith and be willing to suffer to preserve it.

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