A Slave Nation
Professor William Small from the U.of Maine, Orono, ME wrote:
A student came to me the other day with the following question in reference to Genesis 15:13: "Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them 400 years." The young man is a Russian Jew who has become very interested in Judaism and is trying very hard to understand things from a Jewish perspective. Perhaps you would be willing to send me an opinion on this passage? He was very disturbed by it, commenting that he could not understand how G-d would willingly allow his people to be enslaved for 400 years. I would very much appreciate an answer from one of your rabbis on this. Many thanks.
Dear Professor William Small,
The purpose of this enslavement was for the establishment of the Jewish nation. Age-old Jewish philosophy states that there can't be an existence without a previous nihilo, like a plant that cannot grow before the seed decays.
First of all, the communal suffering caused solidarity and love between people sharing the same fate.
Second, the enslavement was the catalyst for the salvation and the great miracles of the Exodus that brought about the belief in one omnipotent G-d and based the Jewish faith.
Third, the generations of physical work caused a national hunger for spirituality which enabled them to receive with vigor the entire Jewish law at the Sinai revelation.
Fourth, dwelling in Egypt, the cradle of ancient culture, the Jewish nation learned and excelled in the sciences and the professions of the era, which helped them build up the Promised Land.