Before he responded to Joseph's invitation to transplant the entire Jewish family to Egypt and avoid the suffering of the hunger years, Jacob went to Be'er Sheba to ask for God's permission to leave the Holy Land. The following passage describes the interview:
"Israel began the journey, taking all his possessions, and he arrived in Beer-Sheba. He offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. God spoke to Israel in a night vision, and said, "Jacob! Jacob!" and he replied, "Here I am." God said, " I am the Omnipotent God of your father. Do not be afraid to go to Egypt, for it is there that I will make you into a great nation. I shall descend with you to Egypt, and I shall also surely bring you up; and Joseph shall place his hand on your eyes." (Genesis 46:1-4)
Nachmanides explains the passage on a deeper level; Jacob sees that the long night of the Egyptian Diaspora is descending on the Jewish people and he is afraid of it. God informs him that while he is correct in his assessment - the Jewish people will indeed suffer exile in Egypt for a long time to come - there is still no reason for Jacob to fear. Instead of weakening them, the exile will forge the Jews into a great nation, and He, God, personally guarantees their survival and return.
A TERRIBLE ORDEAL
Despite its stated purpose of forging Israel into a great nation, the Egyptian Diaspora was a terrible ordeal. Not only were the Jewish people enslaved in Egypt for over two hundred years, they were treated with a harshness that goes well beyond the worst sort of treatment described in Uncle Tom's Cabin. The edict of drowning male Jewish babies by throwing them into the Nile springs immediately to mind, but there were many other instances of severe oppression recorded in Exodus.
The proposition that God created the world as an outlet for His trait of Benevolence is axiomatic to the true believer; to suppose that any human suffering is needlessly inflicted by a malicious Deity is anathema. If Israel suffered in Egypt there must have been some reason for it; some sin for which there was a need to atone. But what was it?
WHERE IS THE SIN?
Whoever reads through Ezekiel or Jeremiah or Isaiah cannot fail to notice that the threatened destruction and exile they are constantly warning the Jewish people about are not akin to natural disasters that strikes without warning. The prophets admonish the people about sins and point out the need for speedy repentance to avoid the threatened destruction. The eventual tragedies are clearly outlined in advance so that when they eventually materialize they will be perceived as the results of spiritual flaws that remained untreated for too long beyond the shadow of doubt. The Egyptian exile does not fit this pattern at all. It was not the consequence of any obvious sin.
God's decision to impose it had already been made generations before it happened and was revealed to Abraham at the time of the "Covenant between the Pieces." God had told the patriarch way back then:
"Know with certainty that your offspring shall be aliens in a land not their own. They will enslave them and oppress them for four hundred years." (Genesis 15:13)
The Talmud explains:
R' Avohu said in the name of R' Elazar: "Why was our father Abraham punished by the enslavement of his children in Egypt for 210 years? Because he conscripted scholars for his army, as it says: 'He armed his disciples who had been born in his house.' (Genesis 14:14)" Samuel said: "Because Abraham went beyond what was proper, and imposed on his relationship with God, as it says: 'How can I really know that it will be mine?' (Genesis 15:8) R' Yochanan said: "He did not bring all the people he could have under the canopy of God, as it says: 'Give me the people and you can keep the goods.' (Genesis 14:21)" (Talmud, Nedarim 32b)
The Maharal of Prague, a great medieval Kabbalist and philosopher, notes in his work The Might of God, that the common theme running through all three reasons presented by the Talmud to account for the edict of exile is a flaw in Abraham's emuna, or faith.
ABRAHAM'S LACK OF FAITH
The conscription of scholars constitutes a lack of faith because it is God who wins the battles, not soldiers. While we are not allowed to rely on miracles and must field an army when we fight our wars, we believe that the effort of organizing armies and the waging of battles is nothing more than hishtadlus - an effort we are commanded to make, but not the actual cause of our victories or defeats. It doesn't make sense to disturb scholars engaged in Torah study and conscript them to fight battles; it is through their studies that we connect with God, and it is our connection to God that allows us to defeat our enemies. Conscription of scholars is a negative form of hishtadlus. All we contribute to any military success is 'effort'; the contribution of foolish 'effort' can only be counterproductive.
The request for a guarantee of inheritance is a much clearer manifestation of a lack of faith; demanding guarantees demonstrates a desire to control the delivery of what was promised, an indication of insecurity regarding the fulfillment of God's promises. Any sort of 'control' is illusory by definition in the eyes of the true believer. A human being can never hold onto any asset without God's help, and therefore the only security that is theoretically possible is faith itself. The believer needs no other guarantee than God's word, and for someone who places no reliance on this word no guarantee is possible.
The Torah records (Genesis 14) the crushing of the rebellion of the Five kings led by the King of Sodom against the coalition of the Four Kings under the leadership of Chadorlaomer. All the inhabitants of Sodom and their possessions were taken captive by the victorious army, along with Abraham's nephew Lot, who was a resident of Sodom at the time. Abraham went to the aid of his nephew and while rescuing Lot, he utterly vanquished the victorious army of Chadorlaomer and acquired possession of the captive people of Sodom and their property. The King of Sodom requested the return of his subjects and offered their possessions as Abraham's reward. Abraham returned everything and refused the offer with the famous remark "if so much as a thread to a shoestrap" (Genesis 14:22].
Abraham's decision to return the captives to the King of Sodom is a different sort of 'lack of faith'. He should have figured to himself that it could not possibly be God's will that these people, who had been released by the fortunes of war from the grip of an evil culture, should be subjected to that evil influence once again. Abraham was well aware of the inequity of Sodom and he should have done his utmost to protect people that Divine Providence had placed into his safekeeping from such pernicious influence.
In fact, Abraham's grand gesture of returning them cost these people their lives. The destruction of Sodom took place a mere thirteen years after this war. By returning the captives to Sodom, Abraham sealed their fate. He was too worried about the possible profaning of God's name if the King of Sodom went around saying, "I enriched Abraham," "those are my people that were impressed into his service against their will". His misplaced concern over causing Chilul Hashem in fact caused a greater Profanity of the Divine Name; as it was, the evil culture of Sodom stood in shambles; had he not restored the population and allowed normal life in Sodom to resume God would not have had to destroy it.
EXILE AS A REMEDY
In other words, these incidents serve to demonstrate that Abraham's faith in God was not perfect. Even though his failings (as described in the Talmud) represent infinitesimal shortcomings, Abraham is the foundation on which the Jewish people is built, and even the smallest fault in the foundation renders it unfit to support the weight of the structure that must be erected upon it. Even his minor faults had to be corrected, and the Egyptian diaspora with all its suffering was the mechanism provided by God to mend the defect in Abraham's faith.
Let us attempt to understand this a little better.
Abraham is referred to by the Midrash as humanity's spiritual giant:
Why is Abraham called a giant among men? Because he really should have been created before Adam, but God said: "Perhaps he will err, and there will be no one who can correct matters, therefore I will create Adam first, so that if he errs, Abraham will be able to correct things for him." (Bereishis Rabba 14:6)
Abraham, not Adam was the true forbearer of mankind. Adam did not have the spiritual power to fix a world that was ruined by Abraham, whereas Abraham could and did fix the world that Adam spoiled. If we were to look for the precise locus of this enormous spiritual power in Abraham's character, we would have to focus on his emuna, or faith. Maimonides presents a clear picture of Abraham that illustrates the centrality of his faith perfectly:
"As soon as this mighty one was weaned, he began tossing around in his mind to the point of obsession the following idea: How can the world keep on spinning without anyone to drive it - it cannot spin itself. He had no teacher and no body of knowledge to consult; he was immersed in Ur of the Chasdim among idol worshippers; his parents worshipped with the rest and so did he, but his heart kept searching till he found the path to the truth and the correct doctrine out of his own superior understanding.
"He realized that there is One God, who spins all the constellations and who created all there is, and there is no other God besides Him. And he realized that the entire world was mistaken ... He was forty years old at the time. As soon as he came to this realization, he began asking questions and debating the inhabitants of Ur, and he began to tell them that they are on a false path. He began destroying the idols, and telling people that the only one it makes sense to serve is the One God ... When he overpowered them with his arguments, the king wanted to kill him; he was miraculously saved and left to Haran." (The Laws of Idolatry 1:3)
The power of Abraham lay in his willingness to live consistently with his perception of the truth regardless of the cost. He was called "Abraham, the Ivri," because ivri means "other side" - the entire world was on the one side and he was on the other. [Bereishis Raba 42:8] To appreciate the immense power of Abraham's emuna, we have only to note that all of the world's monotheistic religions are founded on it. Besides Judaism, Christianity and Islam also draw their legitimacy from the meeting at Sinai described in the Old Testament; all monotheists accept the pioneering role played by Abraham in spreading the word of God. This means that more than half of the human beings alive today are still drawing on the power of Abraham's faith despite all the centuries that have passed since he walked the earth!
THE CHIEF OF THE OPPOSITION
If Abraham represents the immense power of emuna, Egypt stands for the diametric opposite. The Talmud explains the words of the Prophet Isaiah:
"The faith of your times will be the strength of your salvations, wisdom and knowledge; fear of God, that is man's treasure." (Isaiah 33:6)
The faith mentioned in this verse, refers to the section of the Mishna known as Zroim, which discusses the Torah laws regarding planting and harvesting and the general treatment of crops. Tosephos explains the special connection between faith and this particular section of the Mishna in the name of the Jerusalem Talmud: "Because the person who plants puts his faith in the One who lives forever." [Shabos 31a]
The prophet's perception is that the act of planting a crop is evidence of the planter's emuna. Vegetation needs rain, and rain is an unpredictable input that always remains in the hands of God. To make the major commitment of energy and resources that is required to grow and harvest a crop takes a lot of emuna. So many things can go wrong.
When Moses describes the land of Israel to the Jewish people this was the very point he stressed:
"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 Hashem, your God, seeks out; the eyes of Hashem, your God, are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to year's end." (Devorim 11:10-12)
The chief characteristic of the land of Israel is that you can only survive there with emuna.
Let us analyze the depth of the contrast between Israel and Egypt that Moses was referring to. Crops in Egypt are dependent on the annual flooding of the Nile, not on rainfall. The Nile overflowed its banks annually, supplying not only water, but also depositing rich new alluvial silt on Egyptian fields eliminating the need for fertilization. The Egyptian farmer never had to wait anxiously for rain; he devised an ingenious set of canals and irrigation ditches through which he obtained the water he needed for his crops. He did not require any emuna. He was in control.
FAITH AND THE NEED FOR SPIRITUALITY
When you need to pray to God for rain, it encourages you to focus on the spiritual side of life. Your salvation is clearly to be found in heaven rather than down here on earth. When the earth itself supplies the water for your crops, even your spirituality becomes intermingled with physicality. This is amply demonstrated by the fact that even spiritually speaking, Egypt was a very physical place. The great pyramids are still one of the marvels of the world. No human society before or since has ever invested a comparable proportion of its resources into the construction of physical monuments to its deities.
This brings us to a second but no less important aspect of emuna. The person who is compelled by his environment to live with emuna tends to conceive of himself as a spirit clothed in a body. As he is primarily spiritual, so must all his relationships be. If I am primarily a soul, so are other human beings. I can only have a relationship with my fellow human beings soul to soul. Establishing purely physical relationships with other people has the same significance as hanging a pair of suits next to each other in the closet. To such a person, the act of physical union between the sexes is naturally perceived as the culmination of the bonding of two spirits into one. Such a person would have an innate tendency to reject purely physical sexual relationships as being totally beneath him or her.
On the other hand, a person without emuna identifies himself as a body. His body is his real self as much as his mind or his spirit. A physical union is acceptable as being an expression of one's true self. The Egyptian who lived without emuna was also enthralled with physical relationships as we learn from Rashi:
Pharaoh told him (Abraham) to leave Egypt, not to remain, because the Egyptians were awash in lasciviousness as it says: "Their flesh is the flesh of donkeys and their issue the issue of horses." (Ezekiel 23:20)
The Egyptian exile is immersion into an environment that is the very antithesis of emuna. To survive such an exile - and God guaranteed Jacob survival ? requires the acquisition of emuna in all its completeness.
Surviving exile means refusing to assimilate by definition. Such refusal is necessarily based on the power of the perception of the people suffering the exile that they are a different sort of human being than the people of the host culture.
R' Huna said in the name of Bar Kaporo: "The Jews were redeemed from Egypt in the merit of four things - they did not adopt Egyptian names; they did not adopt the Egyptian language; they did not report each other to the authorities; and they engaged in no sexual relationships with the Egyptians." (Vayikra Rabba, 32:5)
Names, language, loyalty, intimate relationships are all powerful indicators of self image. The maintenance of separation in these areas is far stronger protection against assimilation than religious observance, for example. If I change my language and loyalties, and they become indistinguishable from the host culture, my religious orientation will not protect me from assimilation. The Midrash testifies just how stubbornly the Jewish people in Egypt clung to their sense of identity. This sense of your own uniqueness as a Jew is the essence of emuna, because it is based on the vision of unique Jewish destiny bequeathed to us by the patriarchs.
Adversity is a great character builder if you manage to survive it. Disadvantaged people often surpass their more fortunate fellows. The emuna that Abraham was unable to perfect, finally reached perfection in his children in Egypt who were forced to maintain their vision of themselves in the face of great adversity.
God promised Jacob that the Jews were going down to Egypt to become a great nation. Jewish greatness has never expressed itself in huge populations, massive territories, or great military power. Jewish greatness has always meant greatness of spirit. Spiritual greatness can only be attained by surpassing physical limitations, a process that is fueled by the power of emuna, or faith. The body and the physical world are limited, but there is no limit to one's spirit.
After 210 years in Egypt, the Jews were ready to jump into the sea and force it to split, survive forty years in the desert amidst impossible conditions subsisting solely on miracles, and take on the might of the nations of Canaan without any military experience. The immensity of their emuna is clearly in evidence.
These ancient manifestations of the power of Jewish emuna have their modern parallels as well. How can a nation survive two thousand years of exile and persecution and return to its land and revive its language? How can such a tiny portion of mankind be the source of all monotheistic religions? How can such a small portion of humanity have developed the rest of the world's moral values? The greatness of the Jewish people comes from the power of its emuna!