“And He commanded the Jewish people and Pharaoh, the King of Egypt, to take the Jews out of Egypt” (Shemot 6:13).
What exactly was the “command” that G-d gave the Jewish people? The Jerusalem Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 3:5) says that the command refers to the laws of releasing Jewish slaves from their service.
This is quite perplexing. The Jews were steeped in slavery in Egypt, laboring with broken bodies and spirits, with nothing but a tiny glimmer of hope for some future redemption. Was this an opportune time to command anything about the future? And freeing slaves? Now? Why did G-d choose this moment to talk to these pitiful slaves about what must have been a very sore topic?
A king was dying. He knew that his son, untrained in the art of leadership, would succeed him. The king sent him to a professional trainer to learn all about politics and justice. After his training, the king tested his son to see how effective the training had been. He was pleased to see that his son had learned a great deal; in fact, it seemed that he was ready to rule the kingdom. Then the trainer asked for one more session, and the king agreed. Imagine the king’s surprise when the prince came back after his final session half-starved, bloodied, broken, and beaten! Outraged, the king ordered the trainer’s execution. Just before it was to be carried out, he asked the trainer, “How could you think you would ever get away with this? I trusted you with my son, the heir to the throne!”
In response, the trainer explained, “Your son will be a great leader. He has acquired the requisite skills and knowledge to advance the kingdom even further than it’s ever been. He will, however, also be required to make decisions that will affect many people’s lives. He will adjudicate between parties and sentence the guilty. But, as someone who has never known what it feels like to be in need, how will he ever understand the need for compassion? He has never gone hungry, never been whipped, and never felt unprotected… until now. Now he’ll be equipped to rule with sensitivity and compassion, and won’t make decisions lightly.”
Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz explains that the time that the Jews in Egypt were at their weakest and most vulnerable point was precisely the best time to speak to them about caring for slaves and freeing them from servitude — for it was then that they would fully understand their plight and appreciate the importance of relieving them of their suffering.
No one enjoys life’s inevitable downs. But going through a rough time can give us the tools we need to understand and help others when they experience similar trials.
By: Rabbi Ami Neuman