There are crises that develop slowly and gradually while there are others that are sudden, surprising and unexpected. We see that in Jewish history both types of difficulties abound. The fall of the northern kingdom of Israel – that of the ten tribes – was sudden and unexpected. Only a short time before the northern kingdom of Israel had been one of the major military powers in the area.
The destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem and of the kingdom of Judah more than a century later was a long drawn out affair completely predictable and predicted. In perfect hindsight, a strong case can be made that based on the history of anti-Semitism in Europe and especially its virulence in the period between the two world wars of the twentieth century, the occurrence of a Holocaust, though perhaps not its magnitude could also have been foreseen.
The enslavement of the Jewish people in Egyptian bondage was certainly something that was unexpected and unforeseen. Even though the Jewish people had a tradition from their forefather Abraham that they would be enslaved in a strange country for a considerable period of time, they apparently did not feel that Egypt was that country and that this would be that time.
After all, Joseph was the savior of Egypt and the Jews felt comfortable living in Egypt and, to a certain extent, even integrating themselves into the general Egyptian society. All of this would be to no avail for there would arise a Pharaoh who chose not to acknowledge Joseph and the past and turned his unjustified wrath against the Jewish population of Egypt. And this all happened rapidly and almost without warning.
There are conflicting opinions in Midrash regarding the spiritual standards of the Jewish people before and during their enslavement there. There is an opinion that they were traditional, God-fearing and stubborn. They retained their language, mode of dress and moral behavior. There is another almost opposite opinion that they too had become pagans, worshiped idols and were not very different than the other members of Egyptian society at that time.
One can easily say that both opinions are correct because they are referencing different groups within the Jewish people. The tribe of Levi remained loyal to the tenets of the house of Jacob and to the monotheistic tradition, which made it unique amongst all nations of that ancient world. However, undoubtedly there were many others, perhaps even the vast majority of the Jewish people, who assimilated completely into Egyptian society.
They were the victims of an anti-Jewish decree that they never understood. After all, they were good Egyptians, so why were they singled out for enslavement. The Midrash also teaches us that a vast number of these Jews never made it out of Egypt when the eventual redemption occurred. This perhaps was even voluntary on their part for we see that throughout the years in the desert of Sinai, there was a constant call from some of the Jews to return to Egypt even if that meant slavery and hardship.
The original exile of the Jews in Egypt serves as a paradigm for all later exiles and persecutions, no matter if they come on suddenly or gradually. This makes this Torah reading extremely relevant to our current Jewish world.
Rabbi Berel Wein