We hear the word slavery and our minds are drawn to the horrors of what the United States did to Black persons, particularly the American South. The Torah seems to me to be clear slavery in Egypt was less bad, important to acknowledge in confronting the experience fully, to properly learn its lessons. A few examples will make the point, the crowning one coming in this week’s parsha.
Back in 3;22, Gd told Moshe that after the plagues, Jewish women would ask their neighbors and those living in their houses for gold and silver utensils, dresses, and more, a way to plunder the Egyptians. The verse assumes the Jews lived among non-Jews, odd to realize when Ya’akov had made a point of arranging them to live only in Goshen (and the plagues often did not reach where the Jews were living). Either there were non-Jews who had come to Goshen, Jews who had gone to live elsewhere, or both.
The memory of Egypt among the generation who left also doesn’t fit the slavery of the American South. At various junctures, the Jews remember Egypt with a fondness unimaginable for slaves. At the Sea, admittedly fearful for their lives, they refer to their time in Egypt, Shemot 16;3, as when they “sat on the flesh-pots,” and ate their fill.
Perhaps imminent death colored their memories, except a couple of years later, Bamidbar 5-6, they remember a whole menu of foods they ate in Egypt, cucumbers, melons, seeds, onions, garlic, because they were tired of the man. And when the spies bring their report of the daunting feat of conquering Canaan, Bamidbar 14;4, the people’s thought is to find a new leader and return to Egypt. Few slaves from the American South thought of returning to slavery.
As the last example from outside our parsha, Par’oh’s killing of Jewish babies reverberates through our experience of Egypt despite apparently having been a limited event around the time of Moshe’s birth (eighty years before the Exodus). Aharon was born without incident three years before Moshe, Ramban points out, and soon after Moshe’s birth it seems to have stopped. Yet eighty years later, in Ramban’s view, the leaders of the Jewish people (5;21) upbraid Moshe and Aharon for having given the Egyptians a valid reason to persecute them as they had in the time of the killing of the babies.
When we recall the persecutions of Egypt at the Seder, we mention this as the meaning of amaleinu, our toil. In a version of the slavery story that gives the whole two hundred ten years in Egypt two verses, this stands out, a suggestion the other years did not have anything to match the killing of babies.
To turn to our parsha, I have made a frequent point of Rashi’s idea (from the Midrash) that four-fifths of the Jews were killed in the plague of darkness because they did not want to leave, another sign it wasn’t as bad as we assume. For a new example, Rashi to 12;13 presents an idea of the Mekhilta about the night before the Exodus. Mekhilta says a Jewish first-born in the house of an Egyptian would have been spared the plague and an Egyptian first-born in a Jewish house would have been killed.
We might miss the radical implication: the night of the Exodus, when Jews were having the first-ever Seder, after nine plagues had brought Egypt just about to its knees, after four-fifths of Jewry was wiped out for not wanting to leave (in Rashi’s view), Hazal and Rashi still imagined Jews and Egyptians friendly enough to spend the night in each other’s homes.
Caricatures are easily dismissed as irrelevant to lived experience. Rashi and Hazal are telling us Egypt was much closer to current diasporas than we think. However we understand the slavery, it was not bad enough for the Jews to instantly want to leave, once out, to have no interest in returning, nor, we see in this week’s parsha, to prevent real friendships from developing.
If the Jews had pretty good lives, other than having to work hard and not being allowed to leave, would all of us jump at the chance to leave should the door open? To sojourn in the desert, to move to a completely new land? In the recent past, not all Jews wanted to leave Soviet Russia as soon as the opportunity arose.
If the command of Seder night is to relive the Exodus, I’m not sure it’s as hard as we think, because many of us live in circumstances closer to Egypt than we think.