The Jewish People have survived a great deal. Our enslavement in Egypt, discussed in this week's Torah portion, was perhaps the most bitter chapter in our nation's long history. How did these experiences serve our nation?
The Egyptians stopped at nothing in their efforts to breed the Jews in to a broken, subservient slave nation. Techniques included psychological torture, such as engaging the Jews in aimless hardship building cities on quicksand. The cruelty of the unrelenting physical torture went without saying. Our Torah portion describes this time eloquently: "Egypt enslaved the Children of Israel with crushing harshness. They embittered their lives with hard labor..." (Exodus 1:13-14)
These travails contributed to the collective personality of the fledgling nation. One of the qualities that has characterized the Jew in societies around the world has been his stance towards minority groups. This positive quality was welded in to our national character in direct proportion to the torture we underwent at the hands of the Egyptians.
Minority groups are generally helpless in the face of the greater body of society. As such, their needs are often overlooked. They find themselves trampled beneath the feet of those groups in power at that time.
During the period when Israel were enslaved in Egypt, nations of the world were deaf to the cries of the weak. The concept of granting human rights to members of the minority was not just inconceivable: it hadn't even shown up on the drawing table yet. The shame of this reality was destined to well outlive the enslavement of the Jewish People in Egypt: beautiful, enlightened, philosophical Greece did no better at granting basic human rights to their minority groups several thousands of years later. The slave was not considered human in Greek society, either.
In a powerful stance against the prevailing ethos of millennia, the Torah presented Jewish suffering in Egypt as a remembrance obligating correct behavior towards the convert and the slave. Our collective experience of the suffering of exile serves as the background to inspire a kinder, more just society.
Several examples include, "You shall not taunt or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 22: 20) and, "Do not oppress a stranger; you know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." (Exodus 23: 9).
When celebrating national holidays, minorities may not be excluded: "You shall rejoice before the Lord, your G-d – you, your son, your daughter, your slave, your maidservant...the convert, the orphan, and the widow who are among you...and you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt..." (Deuteronomy 16: 11-12).
The weekly comfort of Shabbat rest includes the obligation to provide minorities with rest as well: "...In order that your slave and your maidservant may rest like you. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt..." (Deuteronomy 5: 14-15).
The memory of our national suffering has served to help us have consideration for society's weak and minority groups. Rather than serving to drive home a victim mentality, remembering Egypt empowers us to discover our human potential.
The time will come when we will be called upon to take leadership in our promised land. When that time comes, thanks to the Torah's command to remember the oppression of Egypt, we will faithfully remember that the weak, too, are creations of G-d who are just as deserving of the aid, comfort, and consideration that the privileged take for granted.
Adapted from Parasha U'Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak