It just so happens that one of the best places to find a short, convenient summary of the entire story of the Exodus, is in the beginning of this week’s Parsha. (This summary is so good, that it serves as the core of some of the most critical sections of the Passover Haggadah). After it describes the deterioration of the Jews’ relationship with the Egyptians and their prayers for redemption, it moves on to the actual Exodus by sharing what finally moved God to end their suffering. “God heard our voice and saw our affliction, our travail, and our oppression.” The story then continues with God taking us out of Egypt with an outstretched arm.
The Vilna Gaon assumes, as we would expect, that if the Torah wanted to merely emphasize the severity of the hardship that our ancestors suffered it would do so in fewer words. Instead, the Torah provides a full list of three words that all seemingly indicate some type of suffering. It must be, writes the Vilna Gaon, that they actually each describe a very specific aspect of the Egyptian servitude. His explanation of the last phrase in the list, “our oppression,” is not at all what we would expect. “Our oppression” refers, very specifically, to the lack of a nice place to live. The Gaon explains that a nice home is one of the things that gives a person peace of mind. The Egyptians drowned untold numbers of Jewish new-born in the Nile, enslaved us and mercilessly persecuted our people – and according to the Vilna Gaon, God was worried about our less-than-ideal living quarters?! Apparently, this verse reveals some of God’s rules of the game of running the universe. God doesn’t just act based on monumental and outstandingly good or bad circumstances. Non-remarkably good or bad circumstances, like the comfort of one’s living conditions, also play a role in His ledger book.
I believe that this verse, accompanied by the Gaon’s explanation, reveals another significant message. Our living environment, it would have seemed to me, would be similar to our clothing. The Torah gives a few rules related to clothing – if it has four corners it requires Tzizit, we may not wear linen and wool mixtures. Otherwise, as long as our clothing is dignified and modest, the Torah doesn’t dictate the style, taste, color or anything else about our wardrobe. Jews may wear any style or type of clothing that they wish. Why would our homes be any different? As long as we have Mezuzos, a safety fence around our roof, and smoke detectors, nothing else should matter as far as the Torah is concerned.
The Torah’s specification of “our oppression” changes that assumption. Our homes must be peace-of-mind homes. The Torah does value what our house is like. It is interesting to brainstorm and consider (and fantasize!) what might be the requirements of this type of home. Is the message that our home must be a certain minimal size, or is it saying that it should be clutter-free? Have we finally found evidence that a Jew absolutely must hire a housekeeper, and does it possible justify hiring a good interior designer? Everyone’s peace of mind is effected in different ways by their living space. An unexpected message of this Parsha is the value that the Torah puts on our comfort and its appreciation of appropriate shelter as an essential human need.