Thanking Hashem for the Egyptian Exile?
We all know that Hashem runs the entire world and He is the cause for everything. We also know that no one has the power to go against Hashem’s will. If so, we have to ask ourselves a very basic question: Why do we thank Hashem for taking us out of Egypt if He was the One Who put us there in the first place? This would seem to be like a doctor who intentionally breaks someone’s leg — and then heals him. Does that deserve a thank you? (Birkas Hashir commentary on the Haggadah)
Let’s begin by understanding a fundamental idea in Hashem’s Divine Providence. Ultimately, everything that Hashem does is for our own good. As the Gemara says, everything that Hashem does is for the good (Berachot 60b). This even includes pain and suffering, as they too have many advantages. Firstly, the commentaries explain, suffering serves as a warning for one to improve his ways, and thus is a catalyst for teshuva. Furthermore, the pain itself purifies one from his sins (Shaarei Teshuva 2:1-6). According to some commentaries, suffering also increases one’s reward in the World to Come by making one’s test in this world harder. As the Mishna says, “According to the pain is the reward.” (see Rashi on Berachot 5a “yisurin shel ahava” and Tzlach there; Shaarei Teshuva 2:1-6. But see the Ramban in Shaar Hagemul who disagrees).
Suffering also enables us to attain certain things that are acquired specifically through suffering. As the Gemara says, “Torah, Olam HaBa, and Eretz Yisrael are acquired through suffering (Berachot 5a, see commentaries there who explain why this is so). In all the ways mentioned above it is clear that: While suffering is certainly uncomfortable, it is still advantageous. It is, in fact, for this reason that the Gemara tells us to make the blessing that is recited on hearing so-called “bad news” with the same wholeheartedness and happiness as when saying the blessing on hearing “good news,” because even that which seems bad is for our ultimate good (Berachot 60b and commentaries there).
Chazal tell us that the advantages of suffering exist even when it seems like someone else has control and is causing the suffering. After all, if the suffering wasn’t befitting us, Hashem wouldn’t allow it. As the Gemara says, “One can not ‘touch’ that which is set and destined for someone else” (Yoma 38b). Furthermore, we are told that all this applies not only to an individual’s suffering but also to an entire nation’s suffering. Therefore, even when nations attack and torment us, Chazal always attribute it to a decree by Hashem that is ultimately for our good. Of course, even though it is all a decree from Hashem, the nations that instill the suffering on us are not innocent of guilt. They too will be punished for their evil acts (for the reason behind this, see Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva 6:5, Ramban on Bereishet 15:14 and Ohr HaChaim there).
The suffering that the Jewish People experienced in Egypt was no different. The commentaries tell us that it too was ultimately for our best. Firstly, it was atonement for previous sins. The deeper sources explain this using the idea of reincarnation. Simply put, when someone sins in one lifetime, he may be given the chance to fix his error by being brought back into this world in another body. These sources explain that the generation of Jews in Egypt was a reincarnation of the generation from the time of the flood, the generation that built the tower of Bavel, and the generation of Sedom — all of whom sinned against Hashem. Pharaoh’s decrees — from the torturous labor to drowning baby boys in the Nile — were all “measure-for-measure” corrections for the sins committed in the generation’s previous lifetime.
While it is certainly beyond the scope of this article to fully expand on this, the commentaries delve into and explain how everything was measure-for-measure. On a very basic level, one example of how the punishments were measure-for-measure: The very souls that sinned by working so hard to make bricks for the tower of Bavel were now forced to toil to make bricks and buildings for Pharaoh. Everything was exact — and everything was meant to bring their souls to their ultimate perfection (based on Rav Chaim Vital’s Shaar Hapesukim, parshat Shemot).
There are other sources that attribute the suffering in Egypt to previous sins. One source attributes it to the sin of the brothers selling Yosef, which ultimately caused them go down to Egypt (see Shabbat 10b and Abarbanel on parshat Lech Lecha). Another source points to a minute lack of faith on Avraham Avinu’s part, which manifested itself in his descendants and had to be rectified (see Nedarim 32a, Maharsha there, and Gevurot Hashem perek 9). Other sources attribute the cause of going down to Egypt not specifically to sins but to other reasons. For example, the Ran explains that it was needed to instill in the Jewish People the character trait of submission, thus preparing them for a life of submission to the Torah. Furthermore, the miracles that enabled them to leave Egypt instilled in them the idea that Hashem runs all of nature, and thereby removed any doubt they had about Hashem. In these ways and more, the experience in Egypt was ultimately for our good.
There are obviously many questions that can be asked on each of the reasons above. It is beyond the scope of this short article to analyze each of the reasons in depth. The reader is encouraged to see the Abarbanel on parshat Lech Lecha, the Alshich on the beginning of parshat Shemot and the Maharals’s Gevurot Hashem perek 9 for a summary and analysis of all the reasons given by Chazal and the commentaries for the exile in Egypt.
Going back to the question with which we began, it is clear that we cannot compare Hashem’s putting us in Egypt to a doctor breaking someone’s leg. When Hashem put us into Egypt, He was essentially healing us, and it was a form of kindness from Him. We should therefore thank Him, not only for taking us out of Egypt, but for bringing us there in the first place.
According to the above, we can understand a seemingly puzzling part of the Haggadah. Immediately following the statement that Yaakov and his sons went down to Egypt, ultimately setting the stage for the exile, we praise Hashem. The commentaries point out the obvious question: Why is the praising of Hashem placed immediately after describing how we ended up going down to Egypt? Based on the above, Rashi explains that we are essentially praising Hashem for putting us in Egypt. This is our way of thanking Hashem for what is seemingly bad in the same way we thank Hashem for the good — because, ultimately, even the Egyptian exile was for our best (Ritva on the Haggadah in the name of Rashi).