Passover is behind us, but this week’s parsha gives us the opportunity to reflect on a question that may have come up at our Seder.  Why did the birth of our nation take place after being in Egypt for over 200 years?

Rabbi Shalom Rosner, in his collection of essays on the parsha entitled Shalom Rav, quotes the answer of Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik (1903 -1993, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva University, NYC), “Why could we not rise as a people on our own land, in prosperity and abundance?  The answer is simple.  If our morality was to be one of kindness and Chesed, it could not have been formulated for people who did not know what suffering is.  Only people in exile could understand and appreciate a morality of kindness.”

In this week’s Parasha, Parashat Kedoshim, the Torah makes that very connection when it commands us to love the stranger (convert). “And if a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong.  The stranger that sojourns with you shall be unto you as the home-borne among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt:  I am Hashem your G-d.” (Vayikra 19:33-34).

We were strangers in Egypt and we suffered through slavery and oppression.  We recall that painful part of our history every year at our Seder and multiple times a day in our prayers and our practice.  Sensitivity to the pain of others has become an intrinsic part of the Jewish character.  Tragically, these last 7 months have been a time of immense pain for our Israeli sisters and brothers and for Jew’s worldwide.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks gives a different reason for our national origins in the slavery of Egypt.  He writes that we often only fully appreciate something when it is gone. “Israel had to lose its freedom before it could cherish it.  Only what we lose do we fully pay attention to.  Israel had to suffer the experience of slavery and degradation before it could learn, know, and feel intuitively that there is something morally wrong with oppression.  Israel became the people conceived in slavery so that it would never cease to long for liberty – and know that liberty is anything but natural.”

The war with Hamas enters its seventh month. We long for the release of the hostages and the safe return of Israeli soldiers. The words of Rav Soloveitchik and Rabbi Sacks are perhaps even more meaningful than the day they were written.  Jews everywhere are intensifying their connection with Israel and with Judaism.  We are less complacent about the freedoms of the Western World and more appreciative of our homeland, as we helplessly watch the growing encampments on university campuses and anti-Israel/antisemitic rallies in most major cities.  

Nobody would ever choose to endure the pain that has been and continues to be experienced. We would never wish the events of October 7 on even our worst enemy. They say that “pain plus struggle equals suffering”.  Perhaps our Rabbis saw in the seminal events of the slavery in Egypt, that oppression and pain can have value and purpose if it drives us to be more compassionate and more appreciative of our blessings. In that way, the suffering will not be in vain.

May we merit to see an end to this immense pain, an end to the war, and the final and complete redemption, speedily and in our day.

Shabbat Shalom, Lauren