And the Lord said, ‘I indeed have seen the abuse of My people that is in Egypt... I have heard, for I know its pain’” Exodus 3:7
The slavery in Egypt and the subsequent salvation is the foundation story of our people. God’s instruction to Moses to redeem his people has inspired Jews and non-Jews alike throughout the generations. But are the Israelites required to go through this tremendous ordeal?
The slavery in Egypt is foretold to Abraham, who is informed that his descendants shall be “strangers in a land not their own”, where they will be “enslaved and afflicted for 400 years” (Genesis 15). Yet God does not reveal the purpose for this national affliction. When I recently taught this topic in school, one spiritually sensitive sixthformer was quite troubled by the need for God to inflict this torment on the Israelites.
Of course, I did not have an easy answer to his question. Whenever religion attempts to deal with suffering, the theodicies are always incomplete. One possible approach is to note that the Bible instructs us in numerous places to be sensitive to the needs of the weak in society, since we know what it means be downtrodden and oppressed; to support the rights of the stranger, since we were strangers in a foreign land; to parent the orphans, since we too have suffered the loss of our parents.
To be the moral conscience of the world, the “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” requires a special kind of sensitivity to the needs of others that comes only through the experience of suffering. That does not mean we welcome the knowledge we gain through the pain, but suffering changes us, and sometimes that change is for the better.