This week’s Parsha is one of the three or four Torah portions most central to the Jewish narrative, as we read of the final plagues, the storm brought by God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm gathering on the border of Egypt, the Divine command to prepare for the Exodus by baking the matzot and eating the bitter herbs. It is the essence of the Passover story. We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord took us out from there in a great and historic exodus that would change history and continue impacting on world culture and civilization to this day, some 3300 years later. Our greatest glory — Divine liberation — emanated from the nadir of our enslavement.
So often, events unfold in each of our respective lives that set us back terribly. We wonder: “Why me?” Everything has been going along fine, and then we abruptly find ourselves in Purgatory. Maybe it is a nightmare job with the worst imaginable boss or working conditions. Maybe an Aliyah effort that fails. Maybe a marriage dissolution. Maybe an investment that has gone deeply south or, even worse, that has been lost because of a predator’s fraud.
Suddenly, the “man with the plan” has no backup idea. Everything that once seemed so hopeful and easy has now collapsed.
These horrible life setbacks are augured in the larger story framing the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt. One moment, there is a family finally at peace in Canaan, and the next moment a son and brother is sold into slavery. He finally finds his own peace in a strange land, only to be targeted by his boss’s lusting wife, resulting in his imprisonment. He ultimately rises again, each time higher than before, now bringing his family to Egypt in comfort and security, only to have history unfold horribly once more with a new Pharaoh arisen, the family enslaved, mired in their darkest hour.
It is clear that, as the seminal event in Jewish history, the Exodus from Egypt was meant to teach compelling life lessons that would imbue meaning for all generations. One of those lessons is that every life sustains terrible setbacks, but there also are escape valves that can open better opportunity than before imagined.
Looking back, as if by reverse-engineering Ancient Jewish history, we see the steps that fell into place for this Exodus to unfold. In order for the Jews to be crafted as a unique and holy people, we were meant to become resident in Egypt and then enslaved — so that we eventually could be freed for something greater, a national experience of the Divine Revelation at Horeb. But why did He select Egypt as our national petri dish?
When we first arrived in Egypt amid Jacob and his sons, we were approximately 70 souls. That amount does not constitute a People but a Thanksgiving party. Yet, 210 years later, we would grow into a nation of millions. To become that nation, we would need to forge an identity and cultivate a culture. For that culture to be unique, pure, and unpolluted by surrounding corrupt foreign influences, that family of seventy had to be settled in virtual physical isolation from all others. The great land of Egypt afforded that unique opportunity in Goshen, the rich land Pharaoh authorized uniquely for us. There, undisturbed by neighboring cultures, we enjoyed two centuries to evolve. Moreover, because of Egypt’s military might, our evolution was not threatened by security concerns from outside threats that could have disrupted our evolution. Egypt assured us safety so that we could thrive on our own.
But, before that, we Jews had to have reason to move lock, stock, and barrel to Egypt. Thus, circumstances unfolded that saw Jacob loving Rachel more than Leah, therefore later loving her son, Joseph, more than his other sons. As those sons become jealous of Joseph, they seize him and sell him into slavery, laying the groundwork for his ultimately falling into the hands of Potiphar, a politically influential Egyptian whose wife’s failed seductions prompt Potiphar to have Joseph imprisoned. That incarceration — yet another debilitating setback — was the necessary portal to enable Joseph to meet the imprisoned wine steward who later would become the vehicle for introducing Joseph to Pharaoh and rising to Viceroy status. Once acquiring that status, Joseph could bring his father and brother — the Jews — into Egypt, intending thereby solely to save them from famine when, in fact, God’s greater plan was for them to come there to become a People with their own uniquely crafted culture and civilization.
That is how life goes. Setbacks and complications, with no clear reason “Why,” until years pass, and the Master Plan becomes a bit discernible. Moses’s mother puts him in a basket and floats him in the river because Pharaoh has ordered that Jewish boys be thrown into the river. The basket floats to the princess, assuring that the baby will be reared from infancy in the palace of the king, assuring him a life-impacting education in noble bearing, standing erect and speaking forthrightly to power. The perfect training for the “leader from the periphery” who will lead slaves from bondage. Even as that “happenstance” assures that baby Moses will be regal in demeanor with the skills for political leadership, he also needs to acquire a second education that will train him in religious leadership. So, when he flees from the former comfort and security of Egypt after killing an Egyptian taskmaster, he “happens” to encounter the daughters of Yitro, High Priest of Midian, at the well. Soon he is marrying into Yitro’s family, and Moses now will have a father-in-law experienced in the Priesthood who, for years to come, will teach and guide Moses in the skills and craft of theological leadership.
Within each setback are the seeds from which greater things can germinate in time. Things happen for reasons — bad things, too. We need only pause long enough from asking “Why me?” to discern perhaps why and to appreciate the great new world about to unfold.
Rabbi Dov Fischer, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School, is a columnist for several online magazines and is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County.Share