Yirmiya Perek 11

Everything in this world is here so we can achieve our purpose of gaining a real, enjoyable relationship with Hashem. In perek 11, we are given a glimpse of where exile fits into this picture, via our first ever national exile – our enslavement in Egypt. Yirmiya (11:4) calls Egypt the ‘kur ha’barzel’, the ‘metal purifier.’ This denotes a certain element of cleansing and purifying during our stay in Egypt, as the Radak points out here. Which element was purified? As the Maharal puts it, it was all about emunah. Let us explain with an interesting Gemara.

The Gemara (Nedarim 32a) seems to take on that our slavery at the hands of the Egyptians was some form of punishment. Thus, the Gemara asks ‘Why was Avraham Avinu punished that his descendants were enslaved in Egypt for 210 years?’ and proceeds to give three answers. Rav Elazar said that it was because Avraham forced the Torah scholars to fight in his army (when fighting to release Lot). Shmuel said that it was because he questioned Hashem’s promise of Eretz Yisrael in asking ‘How do I know I will inherit it?’ And Rav Yochanan said that it was because Avraham acceded to the king of Sedom’s request to have the captives returned, when Avraham could instead have taught these captives about Hashem and eventually converted them. The Maharal in his Chiddushei Aggados on this Gemara delves a bit more deeply into these three opinions, positing that there is no major argument here since they are all variations on one theme: emunah. The Maharal also reveals how the punishment (our slavery) was related to its cause, and how the punishment actually corrected the sin which caused it (punishments are there to correct the sins which caused them). And, as Rav Tzvi Kushelevsky points out, the Maharal also addresses an important question which one could have asked on the Gemara. We generally take on that one cannot be punished for other people’s sins, as the passuk (Devarim 24:16) says, “A son cannot be killed for his father(’s sins); a man in his sin shall die”. So how can we be punished for the sins of our ancestor Avraham? Let us begin.

Rav Elazar contended that it was the forced conscription of Torah scholars which caused Avraham to be punished with the enslavement of his descendants. This was rooted in a lack of emunah, for on his high level, Avraham failed to appreciate that it is Hashem Who guarantees success in war and He can ensure that Avraham’s family is saved regardless of which soldiers he takes. Thus, Avraham should have realized it would have been better to leave the Torah scholars to continue their holy endeavours and take other people to fight in their stead.

Shmuel placed the blame on Avraham’s request for a sign that he would inherit Eretz Yisrael. Again, this is rooted in some lack of emunah, but is a smaller sin than according to Rav Elazer. According to Shmuel, Avraham did not have any doubt that Hashem would save his family in war, but he still wanted a sign to guarantee that he would be receiving the present of Eretz Yisrael. Thus, Bnei Yisrael were enslaved in Egypt to make sure they emerged with full emunah.

Rav Yochanan opined that the slavery was a result of Avraham’s missed opportunity to convert more people. We can now discern another perspective on the theme of emunah . According to Rav Yochanan, Avraham failed to increase the emunah present in the world at large by not using the opportunity to enlighten these people about Hashem. And again, the consequence (and correcting) of this sin was that the supernatural miracles of the Exodus led to many people joining the ranks of Bnei Yisrael, amongst them such notable believers as Yisro and Rachav.

As we have pointed out before, the traits of the founder of a nation (or of a father) are passed down to his descendants. And just as any small fault in the genes is expressed more as a child grows, a negative attribute or trait in the founding father will be accentuated through the generations. Since Avraham exhibited some form of lack of emunah, Hashem had to put us in Egypt and take us out with supernatural miracles to test, and ultimately purify, our emunah. This is also why our enslavement does not contradict the principle that one is not punished for another’s sin. For this was not a punishment: it was an exercise to ensure that our emunah would be refined and wholesome; to correct any faults in our “DNA”.

We have discussed the causes behind the promise that the nation would be enslaved for a few hundred years. We have also pointed out that though the slavery, and indeed exile itself, is not essentially positive,, it was aimed at cleaning, polishing, and refining the people’s emunah, and this is why it could form part of a covenant between Hashem and Avraham. As Rabbi Tauber points out in his brilliant book about Tisha B’Av and tragedy, there is nothing like suffering and tragedy to bring one’s inner traits and capabilities to the fore. Hashem put Bnei Yisrael into the ‘metal purifier’ of Egypt (as the Navi puts it) in order to remove any last vestige of impurity in emunah from them so they would be fitting to witness His miracles and ultimately receive the Torah at Har Sinai. And the same holds true for our exile. Hashem put us into exile as an exercise to strengthen our faith in Him. May we pass this test.