Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!
In this week's parsha, God speaks to Moses and tells him to say to the Jewish people:
"I am God, and I will take you out from under the burdens of Egypt; and I will save you from their service; and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and great judgments. And I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be a God to you..." (Exodus 6:6-7)
This passage uses four separate expressions of redemption. Surely any one of these expressions alone would have sufficed to convey God's promise to redeem the Jewish people! Why are all four necessary?
The commentator Netivot Shalom explains that these four promises are not merely expressions of redemption; rather, they represent four separate redemptions (see also Talmud Yerushalmi, Pesachim 10:1). These four redemptions can be understood as four stages of redemption that were needed to completely liberate the Jews from Egyptian exile.
The Jewish people in Egypt had fallen to the lowest possible spiritual level. The Midrash (Socher Tov on Psalms 114) compares the enslaved Jewish nation to a fetus within the womb of an impure animal, based on the verse, "...to take for Himself a nation from amidst a nation" (Deut. 4:34). The Jewish people were living "inside" the Egyptians. Their identity was completely meshed with the corruption and immorality of Egyptian society.
According to the Netivot Shalom, since the situation was so severe, the first stage of redemption was for the Jews to be taken out from the darkness and impurity of their surrounding culture. Nevertheless, they were still slaves to their inner drive toward negativity (yetzer hara). The second stage, then, was to be saved from this servitude. The slave mentality cannot be so easily eradicated, however; even after being saved, the Jewish people were still subjugated to the side of negativity. It was this subjugation from which God redeemed the Jews. The final stage of redemption was for God to take the Jews as His nation.
When we look carefully at the progression of these four stages, we see the Jewish people slowly moving away from their Egyptian neighbors and defining their own identity, gradually transforming from Egypt's possession to God's. This process enabled the Jews to grow into themselves and recognize their unique identity as a people.
The ten plagues (seven of which are found in this week's parsha) are a concrete example of this process. As the plagues progress, the Jews' separation from the Egyptians becomes increasingly clear. This distancing from other nations is not a blanket condemnation; rather, it entails a rejection of those secular influences that are destructive to spiritual growth or antithetical to Torah values. This process of separation helps crystallize the Jewish people's unique identity.
The Ibn Ezra (on Exodus 8:28, citing Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi) notes that the plagues progressed from the bottom up. The first two plagues, blood and frogs, involved water, which flows to the lowest places on earth. The next two plagues, lice and wild beasts, took place on the land - one step higher than water. The following plagues, livestock epidemic and boils, were caused by airborne disease - one step higher than land. The plagues of hail and locusts involved clouds (the locusts formed a cloud of their own!), representing the highest reaches of the atmosphere. The plague of darkness took place on a level even beyond that, in the celestial realm. And the death of the firstborn affected people's very souls, coming from beyond the furthest galaxies.
The Midrash (Shmot Raba 9:10) explains that during every plague, the Egyptians were stricken, while the Jews were spared. However, the Jews who completely identified themselves with the Egyptians were not saved (Shmot Raba 14:3). They died during the plague of darkness. Their desire to become like the Egyptians ultimately resulted in their sharing the same fate as their neighbors.
We can learn from the process of the Jews' redemption from Egypt how valuable it is for us to maintain a unique identity and not to align ourselves with value systems that are antithetical to Torah. Even the non-Jewish prophet Bilaam recognized this when he described the Jewish people as "a nation that dwells alone, and is not reckoned among the nations" (Numbers 23:9). This quality of separateness, which is so often misunderstood, is actually the source of our strength as a nation. While other nations rise and fall, we are still here to tell the tale. The degree to which we preserve Jewish identity is the degree to which that identity will preserve us.
May we be blessed to succeed in separating ourselves from any philosophy that is counterproductive to spiritual growth, and through building ourselves gradually, may we merit to soon be redeemed from this dark exile.