The way this world is ordered, its material aspects gain prominence first and easily reach their complete, powerful expression. Spiritual elements, however, remain hidden; eons pass 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, because 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 men of military age. 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 and were mature enough to receive the divine revelation, the Egyptian empire collapsed, and we left Egypt to receive the Torah at Sinai.
In addition to the blessing of fertility, we also received, upon leaving Egypt, great wealth, compensation for many years of slavery. Thus, Israel began its course with a solid material foundation, as the Torah says:
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 deserts; had they chosen to be righteous, they would have assisted the Israelites in their quest to multiply and prosper, and 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.