The Exodus from Egypt – Spiritual Freedom from Material Enslavement
Israel and Egypt are diametrically opposed. Egypt was an extremely materialistic society, with an idolatrous world outlook. The nation of Israel, on the other hand, has an abstract spiritual world outlook. Thus only Israel was able to accept the abstract belief in one God, Who has no physical representation and no physical definition. Consequently, Israel’s relationship to the material world is also pure and proper, and, so, Jews are naturally modest and circumscribed in matters of sexual morality. The Egyptians, out of their emphasis on the physical and their materialistic worldview, were drawn strongly to promiscuity and incest, so that the Torah commanded “You shall not do like the deeds of the land of Egypt, in which you dwelt” (Leviticus 18, 3). Chazal said that no nation committed deeds more abominable than the Egyptians (Torat Cohanim ibid), especially the last generation that enslaved Israel (according to Maharal in Gevurot Hashem, chapter 4).
Indeed, the Egyptians of that period attained wondrous achievements in developing their land, with a stable system of government, a well-developed irrigation network and an advanced economic system (some of these they achieved with the help of Joseph the Righteous). But these material accomplishments were disassociated from the spiritual world, and were even opposed to it. Their perception was extremely idolatrous. They did not believe in the existence of an independent spiritual soul, but thought that the soul depends on the existence of the physical body, to which the soul is subjugated. This is why the Egyptians went to such great efforts to embalm the dead body. They thought that a person’s entire existence depends only on his physical reality, and that – even if he is dead – that means only that he is unable to move and to speak, but he still exists in every other way. Therefore, also, they invested enormous effort in building the pyramids, which are glorified cemeteries for the body.
It should be emphasized that the material world has an important place in Jewish perception. However, a world outlook built entirely on a foundation of physical reality alone must necessarily be idolatrous and amoral. For all of the examples provided by nature are amoral. They may have beauty and wisdom, reflected in the wonderful regularity of the laws of nature, but they do not have morality. The strong prey on the weak, and strong people enslave the weak. The idolatrous perception, instead of striving toward a higher level, sanctifies material existence, with all its power-based wickedness. By way of contrast, a faith-based, spiritual world outlook is characterized by a constant striving towards improving the world, for struggling against evil and for bringing about the rule of justice. This is how the prophet Isaiah described the Redemption, and the leadership of the Mashiach: “But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the land; and he shall smite the land with the rod of his mouth; and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked. And righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist, and faithfulness the girdle of his loins. And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid… And the cow and the bear shall graze [together]; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox… They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11, 4-9).
Thus the Exodus from Egypt was not just the liberation of those Children of Israel who were enslaved in Egypt, rather it was the liberation of the spirit of all mankind from the chains of the material. Therefore it is so important to engage ourselves with the Exodus, to the degree that we have been commanded to see ourselves every year on Seder night as if we ourselves left Egypt. We have also been commanded to remember the Exodus every day and every night. To a certain extent, all of the Sabbaths and all of the holidays were established as memorials to the Exodus, for at the Exodus the spirit went out free from the bonds of the physical world. Since we have not yet completed our release from the chains of the material world – the chains of the evil inclination and its lusts – therefore, from a spiritual perspective, we still need to continue leaving Egypt. Hence it is a mitzva to engage ourselves with the Exodus.