“…with Yaakov, each man and his household came… and Yosef died and all his brothers and that entire generation… And the Children of Israel… became strong — (bim’od me’od) very, very much so; and the land became filled with them…” (Shemot 1: 6–7)
Sefer Shemot chronicles the exile in Egypt and our miraculous redemption until the construction of the Mishkan was complete and Hashem’s presence dwelled among His Chosen People. In the terse description above, the Torah outlines the transition of our nation that took place after the passing of Yaakov, Yosef and his brothers. It seems from a surface understanding of the pesukim that our bondage began when “A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Yosef” (Shemot 1:8).
Our Holy Torah is not a history book; rather, it is a teaching book. We must look deeper into the events leading up to our bondage in order to “learn” from them the timeless messages hidden beneath the simple interpretation.
The Kli Yakar explains that our people were safe and secure and remained free so long as Yaakov Avinu and his children were alive. Besides the fact that Pharaoh respected and feared Yaakov, the Jewish people also lived according to a higher moral standard. So long as the grandfather was alive, everyone lived as if “the image of his face gazed through the window.” In a land of sorcery, idol worship and immorality, the Jews were isolated in Goshen with a spiritual mentor par excellence. With his passing, his children served as our “conscience” in the face of impure temptations.
The translation above says they became strong — very, very much so. The Kli Yakar points out that the correct grammatical construction of that phrase should be me’od me’od — the letter bet in the word bim’od is unnecessary. Therefore, he explains, the passuk means that the Jews became extremely wealthy, akin to the words b’chol me’odecha (with all of your possessions).
At this point, the spiritual level of the Jews dropped. They no longer had the invaluable guidance of Yaakov Avinu and his children and they became attached to material wealth. The passuk continues that the “land was filled with them.” The Midrash explains that they began to attend the theaters and the stadiums of the Egyptian hosts. The decline probably continued as they got more and more involved in Egyptian society. The wealth that should serve as blessing was the root of their decline.
Then, not as a cause but as an effect of their behavior, Hashem set a new monarch in place. Whether it was a physically new monarch or one whose relationship to the Jews had changed is immaterial. Bottom line: our behavior prompted Hashem to bring on the slavery and harsh decrees we endured for 210 years.
Today’s society is immoral and anti-Torah in every way. In America in particular, and in the world at large, Jews are prospering and living at a material level rarely seen in our 2,000 years of exile. How we approach our good fortune will determine the future. If we get more involved in the standards and values of the outside world, then Hashem might have our enemies, chas v’shalom, inflict disciplines that will protect us from assimilation. If we seek more ways to involve ourselves in the “theaters and stadiums” of the secular world in manners of dress, speech and lifestyle, we may bring upon ourselves undesirable results.
The solution is to make havdalah — to separate from them on our own — and get closer to the purity of a life filled with Torah and mitzvot. A self-imposed ghetto is a difficult task in a wireless world, but it is an imperative for us if we are to pass the test of slavery in our generation.