"The Egyptians forced the Israelites to do harsh labor." (Ex. 1:13)

Rabbi Elazar asked Rabbi Shimon [bar Yochai], his father, "Why did the blessed Holy One see fit to send the Israelites down to Egypt?"

He replied, "Are you asking me one question or two?"

[Rabbi Elazar] responded, "I'm asking two questions: Why were they sent into exile, and why down to Egypt?"

[Rabbi Shimon] answered: "Actually, the two are connected and become one... The mystical explanation of this is as we have learned, 'The world was created with Ten Utterances' (Avot 5:1)

These are the ten statements at the beginning of Genesis that begin: "And G‑d said, 'There shall be….'" These correspond to the ten sefirot (Avodat HaKodesh 1:8), which are called "utterances" because they are expressions of the divine will.

But if you examine [the matter carefully, you will see] that there are really three with which the world was created - chochma, tevuna [an aspect of bina] and daat.

Any blemish down here causes a corresponding blemish above.

As the verse states, "G‑d founded the earth with wisdom (chochma); He established the heavens with understanding (tevuna); through His knowledge (daat) the depths were cleaved…."(Proverbs 3:19-20). Although there are ten sefirot, nevertheless, the other seven are branches of these three. (See e.g. Tanya chap. 3.)

And the earth was not created other than for the sake of the Jewish people.

This is as the Zohar explains this elsewhere (Zohar I, p. 134b; 205b) on the verse "I made the earth, and created man upon it" (Isaiah 45:12).

Now when the Holy One wished to establish the world, He created Abraham with the secret of chochma. It was for this reason that he was previously known as "Avram" [in Hebrew, "Abram"] - "Av Ram" [literally, "supernal father", relating to the partzuf of Abba /"father" and the sefira of chochma, signifying the loftiest level of chochma known as "the intellect that is hidden from all thought" (Torah Or, Lech Lecha p. 11a)]. Only later did he embody the quality of chesed, when he became Abraham - "the patron of numerous nations" (Gen. 17:5).

Similarly, Isaac is associated with bina, and Jacob with daat. Regarding him [Jacob] the verse states, "Through daat its chambers become filled" (Proverbs 24:4)

The Jewish people multiplied through actions of Jacob, who had 12 sons, comprising the Jewish nation.

Then the entire world became firmly established.

When the twelve tribes were born to Jacob, everything was established just as it is Above.

The twelve tribes correspond to the twelve paths which connect together the sefirot of Zeir Anpin - the six sefirot from chesed to yesod - in the higher worlds. (Mikdash Melech)

When the blessed Holy One saw the great rejoicing in the lower world [due to the fact] that they were made in the likeness of the Higher World, He said, "Perhaps Israel will mingle with the other nations and thus cause damage to all the worlds?"

Since they reflected the upper worlds, as mentioned above, any blemish down here causes a corresponding blemish above.

What did He do? He had them all be moved from place to place until they went down to Egypt, where they would dwell among a scornful people who would despise the customs of the Israelites [who were shepherds, and the Egyptians worshiped sheep] and be loath to marry them and mingle with them. They would regard them as slaves and the men would despise them [i.e. the Jewish women] and the [Egyptian] women would despise them [i.e. the Jewish men], until the holy seed had become established…so that when they left [Egypt] they would leave as a holy people, as it is written, "…the tribes of G‑d, a testimony to Israel" (Psalms 122:4).

In other words, the exile in Egypt had its positive side - it protected the Jewish people - just as thorns protect the rose.

[Translated and adapted by Moshe Miller from Zohar II, 14b p. 189b]