When Jacob first went down to Egypt, he went only to sojourn there until the famine had passed. It was supposed to be temporary. But the temporary stay turned into what looked like permanent residence. They settled, and they prospered. They might have remained in Egypt, happy and well fed. Life in Egypt was good. Perhaps it was too good.
Happy, well-fed, and prosperous, the children of Israel could have easily forgotten about their great spiritual heritage. Content with the comforts and luxuries of Egypt, they might have abandoned their aspirations of inheriting Canaan. Who would want Canaan when he already had Egypt?
The children of Israel found their situation in Egypt suddenly reversed when the Egyptian government forced the Hebrews into servitude. A person becomes accustomed to privileges and luxuries and begins to think of those things as necessities. Things that, at one time, he could not afford, and therefore did not worry about, become indispensable needs as he prospers. His own wealth and success become “golden handcuffs” from which he cannot escape. While we are in the service of materialism, our spiritual health inevitably suffers. Yeshua warned us, saying, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24).
While in Egypt, Israel was lured by the attractions of Egyptian society. They began to assimilate into the larger culture. Assimilation poses a greater danger to the people of God than persecution. When we are persecuted, we band closely together and firm up our convictions. We remember that we are not part of the greater culture. When we are received into the culture, however, we lose those distinctions, and we begin to lose our identity. We fall sway under the powerful spell of social allure.
The rabbis speculated that something like this was happening in Egypt. One Jewish collection of commentary on the book of Exodus suggests that the Israelites went so far as to quit circumcising their sons so that their children would fit in better with Egyptians:
When Joseph died, the Children of Israel abrogated the ritual of circumcision. They said, “Let’s be like the Egyptians.” Because they quit circumcising themselves, the Holy One, Blessed be He, reversed the Egyptians’ friendly attitude toward them. (Shemot Rabbah 1:8)
Instead of settling down and trying to fit into Egyptian culture, the children of Israel ought to have been looking toward the return to Canaan. By remaining in Egypt, they made themselves (and especially their children) vulnerable to Egyptian culture. They were already entering spiritual enslavement long before their physical enslavement began.
Whether it is the trappings of wealth or the pressures of socialization, we must beware of allowing ourselves to become spiritually enslaved. The children of Israel may have fallen victim to both. Real, physical enslavement followed quickly.
Source: Torah Portion