On the night of seder, we dip our fingers in wine and count out the plagues. With this action, we note the suffering of the Egyptians even as we celebrate our own redemption. We note their suffering, but do we question it? Do we ask how the Egyptians be made to suffer so completely? One might suggest that the Egyptians enslaved the Jews and so got what they received. But slavery was a common practice, why should they be singled out for happening to enslave the children of Israel? In addition, unlike the men of S’dom, who were called evil, no such appellation is applied to the Egyptians.
In Parshat Lech Lecha, Hashem promised Avraham descendants like the stars of the heavens. Avraham believed and it joined him to righteousness. But then Hashem said: “I brought you out of Charan.” In the very next verse Avraham asked for reassurance – his belief had been shaken. He thought he had been in control. Perhaps he even conceived of G-d and failed to understand His independence.
Hashem’s reaction is a brit – a covenant. But it is a very dark brit. A brit in which, reading the literal text, men cry out to their neighbors and are attacked by vultures. After this, Avraham falls into a deep sleep, the same sleep Adam fell into. It is the sleep of major surgery, a surgery of slavery, justice and reemergence after a furnace with an almost unique darkness. The surgery is a cure for Avraham’s failure to understand Hashem’s independence and true power. And so, when the Jewish people emerge from their slavery, nobody should be able to doubt it when Hashem says: “I brought you out.”
With this brit, the purpose of the Exodus is made clear. It is to establish the place of Hashem. It is to show that He will be who He will be. But the brit does not mention Egypt itself. The prophecy could have applied to Babylon or Lebanon or any other foreign land. It could apply to Germany. And perhaps it did.
So why was Egypt targeted? Why were they used as the target of this object lesson?
In that same Parsha, Avraham goes down to Egypt. Pharaoh wants Sarah and so he buys her. He acts like the sons of elohim described at the end of Parshat Bereshit. He uses his inherited might and power to purchase whichever woman he wants. If he had been unable to pay Avraham with money, he might have taken Avraham’s life. The fear is certainly there. Hashem responds by bringing “great plagues” on Egypt. But no plagues are described and no timeline is given. And the Torah does not say the plagues were removed. Perhaps these plagues come later. The word for plague is naga – and although other words are used, this word is applied to the plague of the death of the firstborn. Perhaps Egypt was chosen because of the Pharaoh who took Sarah.
Where the flood killed the sons of elohim, the actions against Pharaoh serve as an object lesson against those sons in the future. It serves as a message against the unlimited abuse of power by men.
We have the redemption because of the brit, and we have the punishment of Pharaoh because of the incident of Sarah. But our original question remains unanswered. No people would seem to deserve what the Egyptians suffer.
This is where Yosef comes in.
When Pharaoh dreams his dreams, he dreams of fat cattle (par’ot) and corn being consumed – utterly and without a trace – by thin and emaciated cattle and corn. Yosef seems to counter this dream. After all, Egypt maintains his food stocks and even feeds the world. But does he really? In the offerings, par’im (bulls) represent generic national identities. The Jewish people, before they have a mishkan, bring par’im as an offering. On Sukkot we offer 70 par’im for the seventy nations. Par’ot, on the other hand, are rarely offered, but I would argue they represent a reproductive and continuing national identity. The feminine of the par’im. In Pharoah’s dream, the ongoing national identity of Egypt starts full and powerful and ends emaciated and weak. With the corn, this process is tied closely to their agricultural output.