Parashat Shemot is the beginning of Bnei Yisrael's journey from slavery to redemption in Mitzrayim. But, before considering the events of Mitzrayim, we must first ponder the origins of this epic period in Jewish history. When Yaakov brings his family to Mitzrayim to join Yosef, he begins Bnei Yisrael’s experience in the country. In light of this, why would Hashem allow Yaakov and his children to travel to Mitzrayim in the first place if He knew what would happen?
In answering this question, other biblical sagas when people went to Mitzrayim must be considered. The first instance of travel to Egypt occurs when Avraham faces a drought shortly after he first comes to Eretz Yisrael. As the Pasuk states, “VaYehi Ra’av BaAretz VaYeired Avram Mitzraymah Ki Chaveid HaRa’av BaAretz,” “And there was a famine in the land; and Avram went down to Mitzrayim, because the famine was harsh in the land” (BeReishit 12:10). Does Avraham travel to Mitzrayim due to a lack of Emunah, as Ramban asserts, or is he justified in doing so because of his predicament as Rashi seems to believe? Yaakov leaves Eretz Yisrael to live with Yosef in Mitzrayim (although in this instance Hashem instructs Yaakov not to worry about going to Egypt). These stories lead to another question: why must Bnei Yisrael go through the Midbar when leaving Mitzrayim instead of going back to Eretz Yisrael immediately?
Rambam contends that one may leave the land of Israel for only four reasons: to marry, to learn Torah, to save a Jew, or to conduct commerce (Hilchot Melachim 5:9). He also writes that it is permissible to live permanently in Chutz LaAretz only in a time of severe famine. The Avot leave the land that is promised to them for these reasons. Avraham and Yaakov both experienced a famine, and thus they went (or sent someone) to Mitzrayim to obtain food. In addition, Yaakov is eager to return to Yosef. However, why do food, marriage, and Torah specifically allow one to leave Eretz Yisrael? Furthermore, we must understand why Bnei Yisrael must experience slavery and how this relates to contemporary times.
Perhaps the song Dayeinu, sung during the Pesach Seider, can shed light on this issue. The song states that if Hashem were to have brought us to Har Sinai and not given us the Torah, we would have been satisfied. One common explanation of this statement is that when brought to Har Sinai, we became a nation. Of course, the song does not imply that not receiving the Torah would have been an ideal situation, but rather that just coming to Har Sinai and creating a sense of unity contributed to our people. It would have been extremely difficult to create this unity had Bnei Yisrael not first persevered together through hardship. As a result, they had to become slaves in Mitzrayim and then travel through the Midbar.
Still, how do these ideas of unity and leaving Eretz Yisrael connect? If one were to move to Israel today and rely on Tzedaka to live, most would argue that if he could be making a Parnasah somewhere else, he should, as there is no Mitzvah to be a burden on society. If someone were to live in Israel with no money, family, or Torah learning, would he be fulfilling the Mitzvah of Yishuv Eretz Yisrael? With the Rambam’s opinion in mind, the answer seems to be no. Yishuv Eretz Yisrael is not only about living in a certain place; it is about being part of a successful society. In order to establish this successful society, in any land, people need to contribute to society. Thus, one who is missing Torah, his own Parnasah, and a family makes no contribution to the society of Eretz Yisrael and is thus able to leave and return once he can do so.
In order for us to merit the next Beit HaMikdash, we must work on becoming civilized members of society and creating a society of which Hashem will be proud.