I'm not asking why they literally went down (e.g. to look for food). I'm asking, what did they do wrong to deserve it. They were the direct descendants of some of the greatest people in all of history (Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, and the 12 tribes) and I don't see anything in the Torah that they acted sinfully. Not only that - the exile is known to have started with the birth of Yitzchak (Rashi Berishit 15:13) Was it not a punishment?
You are asking why bad things happen to good people. The standard answer is that it's somehow part of God's plan, whether we understand it or not. OK, what are possible good reasons why we were enslaved in Egypt for 210 years? Here are 8 possible answers.
First, we were enslaved for our protection. In the Land of Israel, Jacob's small clan was an easy target for its neighbors. In Egypt, a superpower protected us, albeit to exploit us.
Second, slavery allowed us to build up our numbers in safety. If 210 years equal ten generations, and if numbers double with each generation, assuming four children per couple, the original number would be multiplied a thousandfold: 2^10 is 1024. To get to the 3 million people the Talmud speculates were at Sinai for the giving of the Torah, we have to assume six children per couple, which is not unreasonable for the time.
Third, slavery allowed us to build up our identity and community spirit. We were all in the same boat and followed the same customs. The Midrash says that the Jews deserved redemption from Egypt because they kept their distinct names, dress and language. [Lev. R. 32:5 has names and language; Minor Pesikta, Devarim on Ki Tavo 41a has clothing and food]
Fourth, slavery minimized contact with the outside world. Such contact might have led to idolatry and other practices later forbidden by the Torah.
Fifth, slavery eliminated the possibility of intermarriage. Egyptians wouldn't want to marry slaves, and Israelite women raped by Egyptians would raise their children as Israelites.
Sixth, slavery created a scenario that allowed God to show the Jews and the whole world Who was in charge, with miracles and wonders that make a big impression. God did so when He freed the Jews.
Seventh, the gratitude we felt when we were liberated made it easier for us to accept the Torah. Indeed, the first thing God said at Sinai was:
I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt, the House of Bondage. [Ex. 20:2]
A commentator said that the purpose of our suffering in Egypt was to break our attachment to this world, as suffering makes people more spiritually inclined.
Eighth, the slave mentality made it easier for us to accept the Torah. Indeed, after being a slave for so many generations, the first instinctive response when given a command is to say “Yes, sir!” However, once we accepted the Torah, the slave mentality became a burden, so God waited until the generation of the Exodus died out in the desert before letting us into the Promised Land. In fact, the Maharal went so far as to say that Pessah is not the time of true freedom, but rather the time when we changed masters from Pharaoh to God. However, it must be pointed out that the first “slavery” was for the benefit of the master, while the “second” was for our own benefit.
The Ramban links the start of the 400 years referred to in Avraham's nevu'ah foretelling of Galus Mitzrayim to Yitzchaq's birth and thereby to when Sarah started oppressing Hagar. Chazal say Hagar was an Egyptian princess.
It would seem that even though the oppression was necessary for Yitzchaq to thrive physically and spiritually, the Ramban is saying that the effect on our character of the deed itself needed a major trauma to repair.
The children of Israel were not exiled to Egypt. They could have stayed in Canaan and starved, no one forced them off their land. However, once they traveled to Egypt, they were unable to leave after the death of Joseph. And the reason they remained trapped in exile is because of what Joseph's brother's did to him.
Scripture seems to hint that the only thing known for sure is that a famine was going to strike the lands of the Middle East and North Africa. It doesn't seem like it could've been avoided because God never gave the vision of the famine to Joseph or anyone else in the tribe of Israel. The vision was going to go to Pharaoh, and Pharaoh was going to make a choice. But we don't get to find out what choice Pharoah would have made because Pharoah let Joseph make the choice. And what did Joseph choose? To enslave the entire population of Egypt except for the priests. The idea came from him alone.
וַיְכַלְכֵּ֤ל יוֹסֵף֙ אֶת־אָבִ֣יו וְאֶת־אֶחָ֔יו וְאֵ֖ת כׇּל־בֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יו לֶ֖חֶם לְפִ֥י הַטָּֽף׃
Joseph sustained his father, and his brothers, and all his father’s household with bread, down to the little ones.
וְלֶ֤חֶם אֵין֙ בְּכׇל־הָאָ֔רֶץ כִּֽי־כָבֵ֥ד הָרָעָ֖ב מְאֹ֑ד וַתֵּ֜לַהּ אֶ֤רֶץ מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ וְאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן מִפְּנֵ֖י הָרָעָֽב׃
Now there was no bread in all the world, for the famine was very severe; both the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished because of the famine.
וַיְלַקֵּ֣ט יוֹסֵ֗ף אֶת־כׇּל־הַכֶּ֙סֶף֙ הַנִּמְצָ֤א בְאֶֽרֶץ־מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ וּבְאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן בַּשֶּׁ֖בֶר אֲשֶׁר־הֵ֣ם שֹׁבְרִ֑ים וַיָּבֵ֥א יוֹסֵ֛ף אֶת־הַכֶּ֖סֶף בֵּ֥יתָה פַרְעֹֽה׃
Joseph gathered in all the money that was to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, as payment for the rations that were being procured, and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s palace.
וַיִּתֹּ֣ם הַכֶּ֗סֶף מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֘יִם֮ וּמֵאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֒עַן֒ וַיָּבֹ֩אוּ֩ כׇל־מִצְרַ֨יִם אֶל־יוֹסֵ֤ף לֵאמֹר֙ הָֽבָה־לָּ֣נוּ לֶ֔חֶם וְלָ֥מָּה נָמ֖וּת נֶגְדֶּ֑ךָ כִּ֥י אָפֵ֖ס כָּֽסֶף׃
And when the money gave out in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came to Joseph and said, “Give us bread, lest we die before your very eyes; for the money is gone!”
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יוֹסֵף֙ הָב֣וּ מִקְנֵיכֶ֔ם וְאֶתְּנָ֥ה לָכֶ֖ם בְּמִקְנֵיכֶ֑ם אִם־אָפֵ֖ס כָּֽסֶף׃
And Joseph said, “Bring your livestock, and I will sell to you against your livestock, if the money is gone.”
וַיָּבִ֣יאוּ אֶת־מִקְנֵיהֶם֮ אֶל־יוֹסֵף֒ וַיִּתֵּ֣ן לָהֶם֩ יוֹסֵ֨ף לֶ֜חֶם בַּסּוּסִ֗ים וּבְמִקְנֵ֥ה הַצֹּ֛אן וּבְמִקְנֵ֥ה הַבָּקָ֖ר וּבַחֲמֹרִ֑ים וַיְנַהֲלֵ֤ם בַּלֶּ֙חֶם֙ בְּכׇל־מִקְנֵהֶ֔ם בַּשָּׁנָ֖ה הַהִֽוא׃
So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them bread in exchange for the horses, for the stocks of sheep and cattle, and the asses; thus he provided them with bread that year in exchange for all their livestock.
וַתִּתֹּם֮ הַשָּׁנָ֣ה הַהִוא֒ וַיָּבֹ֨אוּ אֵלָ֜יו בַּשָּׁנָ֣ה הַשֵּׁנִ֗ית וַיֹּ֤אמְרוּ לוֹ֙ לֹֽא־נְכַחֵ֣ד מֵֽאֲדֹנִ֔י כִּ֚י אִם־תַּ֣ם הַכֶּ֔סֶף וּמִקְנֵ֥ה הַבְּהֵמָ֖ה אֶל־אֲדֹנִ֑י לֹ֤א נִשְׁאַר֙ לִפְנֵ֣י אֲדֹנִ֔י בִּלְתִּ֥י אִם־גְּוִיָּתֵ֖נוּ וְאַדְמָתֵֽנוּ׃
And when that year was ended, they came to him the next year and said to him, “We cannot hide from my lord that, with all the money and animal stocks consigned to my lord, nothing is left at my lord’s disposal save our persons and our farmland.
לָ֧מָּה נָמ֣וּת לְעֵינֶ֗יךָ גַּם־אֲנַ֙חְנוּ֙ גַּ֣ם אַדְמָתֵ֔נוּ קְנֵֽה־אֹתָ֥נוּ וְאֶת־אַדְמָתֵ֖נוּ בַּלָּ֑חֶם וְנִֽהְיֶ֞ה אֲנַ֤חְנוּ וְאַדְמָתֵ֙נוּ֙ עֲבָדִ֣ים לְפַרְעֹ֔ה וְתֶן־זֶ֗רַע וְנִֽחְיֶה֙ וְלֹ֣א נָמ֔וּת וְהָאֲדָמָ֖ה לֹ֥א תֵשָֽׁם׃
Let us not perish before your eyes, both we and our land. Take us and our land in exchange for bread, and we with our land will be serfs to Pharaoh; provide the seed, that we may live and not die, and that the land may not become a waste.”
וַיִּ֨קֶן יוֹסֵ֜ף אֶת־כׇּל־אַדְמַ֤ת מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ לְפַרְעֹ֔ה כִּֽי־מָכְר֤וּ מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ אִ֣ישׁ שָׂדֵ֔הוּ כִּֽי־חָזַ֥ק עֲלֵהֶ֖ם הָרָעָ֑ב וַתְּהִ֥י הָאָ֖רֶץ לְפַרְעֹֽה׃
So Joseph gained possession of all the farm land of Egypt for Pharaoh, all the Egyptians having sold their fields because the famine was too much for them; thus the land passed over to Pharaoh.
וְאֶ֨ת־הָעָ֔ם הֶעֱבִ֥יר אֹת֖וֹ לֶעָרִ֑ים מִקְצֵ֥ה גְבוּל־מִצְרַ֖יִם וְעַד־קָצֵֽהוּ׃
And he removed the population town by town, from one end of Egypt’s border to the other.
רַ֛ק אַדְמַ֥ת הַכֹּהֲנִ֖ים לֹ֣א קָנָ֑ה כִּי֩ חֹ֨ק לַכֹּהֲנִ֜ים מֵאֵ֣ת פַּרְעֹ֗ה וְאָֽכְל֤וּ אֶת־חֻקָּם֙ אֲשֶׁ֨ר נָתַ֤ן לָהֶם֙ פַּרְעֹ֔ה עַל־כֵּ֕ן לֹ֥א מָכְר֖וּ אֶת־אַדְמָתָֽם׃
Only the land of the priests he did not take over, for the priests had an allotment from Pharaoh, and they lived off the allotment which Pharaoh had made to them; therefore they did not sell their land.
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יוֹסֵף֙ אֶל־הָעָ֔ם הֵן֩ קָנִ֨יתִי אֶתְכֶ֥ם הַיּ֛וֹם וְאֶת־אַדְמַתְכֶ֖ם לְפַרְעֹ֑ה הֵֽא־לָכֶ֣ם זֶ֔רַע וּזְרַעְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הָאֲדָמָֽה׃
Then Joseph said to the people, “Whereas I have this day acquired you and your land for Pharaoh, here is seed for you to sow the land.
וְהָיָה֙ בַּתְּבוּאֹ֔ת וּנְתַתֶּ֥ם חֲמִישִׁ֖ית לְפַרְעֹ֑ה וְאַרְבַּ֣ע הַיָּדֹ֡ת יִהְיֶ֣ה לָכֶם֩ לְזֶ֨רַע הַשָּׂדֶ֧ה וּֽלְאׇכְלְכֶ֛ם וְלַאֲשֶׁ֥ר בְּבָתֵּיכֶ֖ם וְלֶאֱכֹ֥ל לְטַפְּכֶֽם׃
And when harvest comes, you shall give one-fifth to Pharaoh, and four-fifths shall be yours as seed for the fields and as food for you and those in your households, and as nourishment for your children.”
וַיֹּאמְר֖וּ הֶחֱיִתָ֑נוּ נִמְצָא־חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֵ֣י אֲדֹנִ֔י וְהָיִ֥ינוּ עֲבָדִ֖ים לְפַרְעֹֽה׃
And they said, “You have saved our lives! We are grateful to my lord, and we shall be serfs to Pharaoh.”
וַיָּ֣שֶׂם אֹתָ֣הּ יוֹסֵ֡ף לְחֹק֩ עַד־הַיּ֨וֹם הַזֶּ֜ה עַל־אַדְמַ֥ת מִצְרַ֛יִם לְפַרְעֹ֖ה לַחֹ֑מֶשׁ רַ֞ק אַדְמַ֤ת הַכֹּֽהֲנִים֙ לְבַדָּ֔ם לֹ֥א הָיְתָ֖ה לְפַרְעֹֽה׃
And Joseph made it into a land law in Egypt, which is still valid, that a fifth should be Pharaoh’s; only the land of the priests did not become Pharaoh’s. וַיֵּ֧שֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ גֹּ֑שֶׁן וַיֵּאָחֲז֣וּ בָ֔הּ וַיִּפְר֥וּ וַיִּרְבּ֖וּ מְאֹֽד׃
Thus Israel settled in the country of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; they acquired holdings in it, and were fertile and increased greatly
I have no proof that Pharaoh would have made a different/better choice than Joseph did. But I will say this, the only reason Joseph got to hear Pharaoh's vision is because his brothers threw him in a pit to be sold off as a slave. And it doesn't surprise me that Joseph, who has now been a slave for his entire adult life because of what his brothers did, would choose a solution that literally enslaves the entire population of Egypt. Lastly, scripture makes clear that only reason the rest of Joseph's family didn't immediately go into slavery is because Joseph sustained his family on his own during his lifetime.
Which unfortunately means that when Joseph dies, his policies that outlived him will enslave the rest of the children of Israel, and therefore they will be trapped in exile. The brothers were guilty for the sin of enslaving their brother, and therefore they were enslaved on account of their brother.
Maurice Mizrahi had eight great reasons! I agree with his answers and they are thought provoking! I'll give you a different take though.
It's possible that Abraham's descendants are punished since Abraham and Lot derive some of their wealth and separation from Egypt without God telling them to do so.
Exodus 20:5 says that the children will be punished for the sins of their father up until the third and fourth generations. Abraham (Generation 1) derived his wealth from Egypt, while Joseph (Generation 4) gets all of his power from Egypt and then subsequent generations are enslaved after Joseph's generation.
- In Genesis 16:1-4, Abraham "invests" in Egypt by having his first born son Ishmael through the Egyptian maidservant Hagar. God did not tell Abraham and Sarah to do this - they decided it by their own accord. The nation of Ishmael brings Joseph to Egypt according to Genesis 37:28.
"Flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone." - Genesis 2:23. Is the Egyptian slave Hagar the other half of Abraham? As in, Abraham is identifying with Hagar. Abraham sees part of himself in Hagar, who is a Egyptian slave that's oppressed by a more privileged person (Sarah).
- The wealth of Egypt divides Abraham and Lot, because they got their cattle from Egypt (Genesis 12:16,Genesis 13:5-7). And Lot pursues land (Sodom) that is similar to Egypt's land (Genesis 13:10). Abraham allows Lot to separate from him due to their multitude of cattle. Should he have done this? Originally, Abraham wanted to include Lot in his spiritual journey (Genesis 13:4-5). But now because of the cattle from Egypt, Abraham is allowing he and Lot to separate. Lot is weaker by himself without Abraham, since he is kidnapped in the next chapter. The separation was not good and was not demanded by God.
- In Genesis 14:23, Abraham rejects anything that the King of Sodom gives to him - should Abraham have taken any wealth from the Pharaoh of Egypt in Genesis 12:14-16? Maybe Abraham was wrong to rely upon Egypt's wealth originally.
- Wealthy mindsets (adopted from Egypt?) seem to exclude/separate your brother from you. Maybe this is about Exodus 20:5.
A) Sarah did not want Ishmael to take part of Isaac's portion of wealth, thus separating them (Genesis 21:10).
B) After purposely separating from his brother Esau, Jacob goes on to build stalls for his cattle in Succoth and Jacob's wealth pushes Esau out of Canaan (Genesis 33:17, Genesis 36:6-7).
C) Joseph sees himself as separate and higher than all his brothers. A major divide arises between Joseph and his brothers due to Egypt putting Joseph as second command to Pharaoh.