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Devarim 4:20- Rashi מכור — a כור is a vessel in which one refines gold.

Explaing that Egypt was as the Torah describes a Kur HaBarzel, an iron crucible, which has the power, explains Rashi to purify gold and remove all dross that is found in it. So too the Jewish people are like gold that needed a fiery cleansing experience which would prepare them to receive the Torah. As Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, in HaKt’av V’HaKabbalah explains that God’s true purpose behind the Egyptian slavery was to purify the Jewish people [of their baser characteristics], just as gold is purified in a crucible. He wanted to remove the base metals so that only pure gold would remain.

On the other hand, Zohar (the mystical interpretation on the Bible) tells us that over the years and centuries of enslavement, the Jews in Egypt had reached the 49th level of impurity, one level away from oblivion. Had they sunken any more into their impurities, they would have been totally irredeemable. Therefore, once the redemption was announced, the Israelites had to leave Egypt post-haste, before they were contaminated any further. (Zohar Hachadash, Yitro 31a; Ohr Hachayim, Shemot 3:8)

If the slavery of Egypt is a "Process of Purification", why did the Jews degraded to the 49th level of impurity (one level away from oblivion)?

How come a brutal and violence filled country like Egypt can be a purification vessel from which comes out a Holy Nation (who were prepared to recieve the Torah)?

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  • @nahum at the least, this is a valid question on all the authorities who accepted the Zohar and presumably knew Chumash... (Afaik even RYE accepted it, just not as the work of Rashbi)
    – AKA
    Jan 5 at 0:56
  • Yechezkel 20:8 and Yehoshua 24:14 seem to say that Israel wasn't in the greatest shape spiritually in Egypt
    – Nahum
    Jan 16 at 19:57

2 Answers 2

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Thought-provoking question. Impurity is not necessarily correlated to character. A woman giving birth or someone taking care of the deceased becomes impure as they are doing a mitzvah. At the same time that the Jewish people were more and more surrounded by impurity, their faith in G-d and distinctness as a nation grew. I understood that the slavery is what purified them, not "Egypt".

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  • If Purity/Impurity is not related to character, how did the slavery purify them if they are descending to the lowest level of Impurity? Jan 17 at 6:27
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The Zohar answers the question. The 50 levels mentioned are the 50 Gates of Binah. These 50 gates are the doors between our intellect and our middot, whereby each midda (character trait and emotion) is generated by what's going on in our intellect. The quality of each gate is the quality of the midda generated: with kedusha or tumah.

The Zohar in Parashat Emor describes how during the 49 days after leaving Egypt (Sefirat HaOmer), we worked on each one of our Gates of Binah, i.e. refine one character trait and go up a level each day, to the point that we were at the 49th level of kedusha by the time we got to Har Sinai.

The question the Netivot Shalom (parashat Emor) asks is, why did it only take 49 days? Didn't they have to rise out of the 49 levels of impurity first, and then spend another 49 days climbing the levels of holiness? The answer is that they converted each negative character trait into a positive character trait. This process is a process of refinement indeed, and is the concept of "rescuing sparks" brought by the Zohar and Arizal.

This is not the full story though, as we are not on the 49th gate of Tumah (I presume?), yet it takes us a life time (or some say, 2000 years) to refine our middot, so how did they do it in 49 days? The answer is the servitude of Egypt (as mentioned by diylmma). Servitude produces servants. Suffering, denial of autonomy and harsh treatment force a person to break their ego and their addiction to the "I" that is the obsession of the animal soul. This restores the natural humility of our intellect, and allows us to more objectively contemplate our middot, and contemplate and become motivated by the needs of others and even excited to respond to those needs, rather than our own needs. This allows us to serve others and emulate Hashem.

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