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April 7, 2017

by Rabbi Isaac Mann

One of the key principles that the Haggadah follows in recounting the story of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is “matchil be’genut u’mesayim be’shevah” (literally, “one begins with the disgrace and ends with the glory”), i.e. one starts with the negative or low point of our history and concludes with the positive. What is the negative? On this Rav and Shmuel disagree, as recorded in the Talmud (Pesahim 116a) – “Rav said  that one should begin by saying: At first our forefathers were idol worshippers, before concluding with words of glory. And Shmuel said: The disgrace with which one should begin his answer is: We were slaves.

It would appear that by following this order, whether according to Rav or Shmuel, we are focusing our attention on the glorious outcome of the Exodus story, namely our emancipation from Egypt and achievement of freedom. By starting out with what we were in the beginning, with the part that we are not proud of, both spiritually (as idol-worshippers) and physically (as slaves), we are highlighting the freedom aspect. How much more can we appreciate freedom and liberty when initially we were deprived of that. Just as one who was sick and then recovers is far more grateful for his good health, so too one who was deprived of the opportunity to worship the One God and then succeeds in being able to do so, spiritually and physically, has greater appreciation for that gift than one who never had the deprivation.

However, there is another way of understanding the above-mentioned principle. The Rabbis did not insist that we start the story of the Exodus with the negative solely to underscore the shevah, the glorious outcome, but rather they saw the genut as an integral part of the Exodus and something that is very important to our history. It is and was what shaped the Jewish nation and made it who we are. By going through a long period of slavery, we learned what it means to be a slave and how not to treat others. We became a nation that is merciful and caring, traits that are in our DNA, so to speak, because of our experience. Thus, we were forged in an oven of oppression and emerged from it to never  subjugate others to such an experience that we went through. Thus. The many references in the Torah to remember that we were slaves in the land of Egypt.

In this light, we can understand why Abraham never challenged God when he was told that his descendants will become slaves in a foreign nation and that they will be oppressed for four hundred years (Gen. 15:13). Could he not have pleaded for his offspring, as he did for the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah? Apparently, he understood that God’s prophetic message to him was not to be understood as a punishment to be meted out, but rather it was a blessing that would allow for his descendants to become a nation chosen by God who would emulate the Almighty and become a truly kind and merciful people. That could only have happened through the experience that they had in Egypt. The low point of our history, therefore, didn’t just lead to the high point – it became part of our high point.

Thanks to all of you who prayed for me, called me, and helped me during my recent illness and hospital stays. May you all have a hag kasher ve’someiah.


Rabbi Isaac Mann is on the rabbinic faculty of AJR. He is the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.