The Sages state that one must begin the story of the Exodus with indignity (“genut”) and end it with praise (“shevaḥ”). To what sort of “indignity” does this refer? Some say it refers to physical indignity – the fact that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, that the Egyptians embittered our lives with all manner of hard labor, until God redeemed us from them (the view of Shmuel). Others say that it refers to spiritual indignity – the fact that our distant ancestors, Teraḥ and Lavan, were pagans, and through a long process of refinement we became an entire nation of monotheists (the view of Rav). In practice, we follow both approaches, recounting in the Hagada the process of our emergence from enslavement to freedom as well as the process that took us from idolatry to the point when God revealed Himself to us, and we achieved complete faith (Pesaḥim 116a).
At first glance, it might seem preferable to tell only the pleasant and agreeable stories. A deeper second glance, however, makes it clear that the more we contemplate the hardships of the enslavement and the ignominy of the paganism practiced by our forefathers, the better we can grasp the enormity of our redemption. Light is more discernible in the midst of darkness.
In addition, discussing our undignified beginnings allows us to better understand that Israel’s uniqueness is not contingent upon our success or good deeds, but is rooted in divine election that lies beyond all human comprehension. f Though we lacked all dignity as contemptible slaves, God chose us from all other nations and took us out of Egypt with signs and demonstrations. Despite the fact that our forefathers were idolaters, God chose to reveal Himself to us and give us the Torah. Thus, Israel’s special status is not contingent on anything of this world, but on Divine fiat.
This can also teach us about Israel’s unique ability to turn darkness into light and evil into good, and to bring redemption to the world. We therefore start the story by emphasizing our former indignity, to show that from the ignorance of paganism and servitude we rose up and achieved great things. This is an encouraging and comforting message: As then, so too now – our redemption will emerge from the suffering and travails of recent generations.
Additionally, discussing the fact that we were ignoble slaves awakens our sensitivity and consideration for strangers and for the unfortunate who suffer and need help, as it is stated: “Do not oppress the stranger, for you know how it feels to be a stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Shemot 23:9).