Bekhol Dor VaDor – Echoes of the Egyptian Exilic Experience1


In Tanakh, suffering on a national scale usually comes as punishment for evil deeds. Yet, in the case of the Egyptian bondage, there is no indication that any particular sin was responsible for the decree.2  As a result, commentators throughout the ages have struggled to understand what necessitated Israel’s exile and subsequent slavery in Egypt.  While doing so, many attempted to also answer the "bekhol dor vador" question:  Why it is specifically our nation which is always targeted for persecution in every generation.3  Naturally, these commentators utilized their own exilic experiences to illuminate the narrative of the Egyptian encounter, while reciprocally using the Biblical story as a model through which to comprehend all future oppression.4  This bi-directional process leads to many fascinating insights.
Several commentators focus on how life in exile was critical for the formation of Israel’s national identity and the prevention of assimilation.  R. Ovadiah SfornoBereshit 46:3About R. Ovadyah Sforno (15th-16th Century Italy) asserts that had Yaakov's family remained in Canaan, they would have gradually absorbed the culture and values of their neighbors.  Being exiled to a society which abhorred them5 and later enslaved them is what enabled the Children of Israel to grow and develop into a nation.6  As R. HirschBereshit 45:11About R. S"R Hirsch (19th Century Germany) further elaborates, in medieval times, ghettos continued to play the same role as Goshen, ensuring that the Jews remained distinct and did not assimilate.
NetzivShemot 1:7Bemidbar 23:9Haggadah Shel Pesach "Vehi Sheamedah"About R. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (19th Century Lithuania) moves in a similar direction, but focuses on the second stage of the narrative, the oppression, and its utility in combatting assimilation.  In contrast to Sforno, he asserts that it was in Egypt that the Children of Israel first began to assimilate, and that it was anti-Semitism which proved to be their salvation.  The Netziv adds that, historically, every time the Jews attempted to join surrounding society, the result was non-acceptance and even persecution, the perfect antidote to acculturation.7
R. HirschBereshit 45:11About R. S"R Hirsch views the tribulations of exile as a vehicle not only for religious growth, but also for societal and interpersonal maturation.   He claims that both the Egyptian and later exiles resulted from jealousy and class distinctions. Yaakov's preferential treatment of Yosef and the difference in status between the sons of his primary wives and those of his maidservants led to internecine strife.  Similar sectarian divisions have plagued Judaism ever since.  Anti-Semitism, though, is blind to such divisions, and it serves as the great equalizer, promoting unity and forging common experiential bonds.
Finally, R. Eliezer AshkenaziMa'asei Hashem, Ma'asei Mitzrayim 1About R. Eliezer Ashkenazi (16th Century Poland) focuses on how the exilic experience affects not merely the nation of Israel, but also the world at large.  The exilic encounter with other nations facilitates the spread of ethical monotheism and Torah values throughout the world, and the miraculous process of redemption from Egypt proclaimed Hashem's existence to all.8  May it be His will that this process be completed speedily and during our lifetime!