The way this world is ordered, its material aspects gain prominence first and easily reach their complete, powerful expression. Spiritual elements, however, remain hidden; it takes a long time before their significance becomes discernible. It was thus natural that the Egyptians initially overpowered Israel, for Egyptian might had already come to full fruition, while Israel was still like an unborn embryo. Since Israel’s strength could not be yet expressed, the Egyptians exploited Israel’s weakness and enslaved them to fuel their glory and their lusts.
But this was also for the best. Spirituality cannot be expressed in the world without a material basis, and this is exactly what we gained from being enslaved in Egypt. During the entire period that the Egyptians enslaved Israel and thought that they were overpowering us completely, in reality we were drawing and absorbing their power, as it is written: “The Israelites were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceedingly mighty; and the land was filled with them” (Shemot 1:7). The more the Egyptians tried to enslave and subdue us, the more we increased, as it is written: “But the more they tormented them, the more they multiplied, and the more they proliferated” (Ibid. 12) until we numbered 600,000 adult men. Maharal explains (Gevurot Hashem chs. 4 and 12) that this was the number necessary for the establishment of the nation of Israel. Once we numbered 600,000, an aspect of the divine was revealed within us, the Egyptian empire collapsed, and we left Egypt to receive the Torah at Sinai.
Not only were we blessed with fertility in Egypt, we also left Egypt with great wealth, compensation for many years of slavery. Thus, Israel began its course with a solid material foundation. This is the meaning of:
When you go, you shall not go empty-handed; rather, every woman shall ask of her neighbor and of she who lives in her house silver and gold vessels and clothes; and you shall put them upon your sons and your daughters, and thus you shall despoil Egypt. (Shemot 3:21-22)
The Egyptians got their just desserts; had they chosen to be righteous, they would have taken care of the Israelites and helped them multiply and prosper. They would have benefited from this doubly, as they did when Yosef contributed to Egypt’s success during the difficult years of famine. But they chose evil, cruelly enslaving Israel, and consequently they were punished with ten plagues. The name of God was thus sanctified in the world, for the wicked were brought to justice and Israel left to eternal freedom.